For over a decade Sebastiaan Bremer has created a remarkable oeuvre of exquisitely intricate drawings over photographs, which could be divided into landscapes, portraits, interiors, genre scenes, allegories, and still lifes―or psychologically charged hybrids of them. If these categories sound conventional, Bremer’s take on them is idiosyncratic and eccentric. All of his works share a labyrinthine, multi-layered, often mystical or delirious sense of reality and a non-linear, meandering approach to time as they engage the past, the present, and figments of the imagination.
Typically, Bremer starts by enlarging unassuming snapshots, the kind that fall out of an overflowing album or pile up in a drawer. These more or less blurred photographs show family, friends, lovers, homes, and landscapes―mementoes ranging from Bremer’s infancy to recent days. At times he overlays multiple images, other times the photographic paper, though exposed, is almost blank. In some cases he manipulates the pictures with photographic dyes before he embarks on an intellectual and emotional voyage that involves his signature process of applying thousands of tiny ink dots, which grow into delicate and fluid webs of rippling and rolling lines.
Most patterns are purely abstract and suggest energy flow, brain waves, or cell structures. Others form images or words culled from Bremer’s private life, pop-up symbols that only Bremer can ultimately decode. But there are also numerous references to music, literary works, and paintings that propel his individual experience into a larger cultural and societal context. Bremer’s information-packed networks drawn over documentary photographs are like snapshots of his mind. These mental pictures are taken from multiple angles and they imply brainstorming, reminiscing, hallucinating, musing, brooding, dreaming, reflecting, and automatic doodling. By applying dotted rather than solid lines, and by leaving gaps and dead ends, Bremer hints at the fickle nature of memory and at the hypothetical aspect of interpretation.
Shoshana Dentz You choose an image to work with, one with a particular set of meanings and references. Since you layer multiple images in your work, the juxtapositions trigger new meanings. At the end, what remains known and transparent to you is not at all so to the viewer. Yet that open response is key for the viewer―the wandering of the gaze within the picture, finding images and relationships and trying to grasp the totality.
Sebastiaan Bremer Sometimes for me it’s hard to estimate how legible the parts I added to the photograph are to others because, of course, it’s me who put them in there, and it’s impossible to see the works as someone who sees them for the first time. There are things in a picture that I accept viewers will not read exactly as I saw them. Besides, there’s a time release in observation; things reveal themselves as you are looking.
Sometimes I even forget what I’ve put in a picture, especially with the very dense ones. In Invasões Holandesas, for instance, this red ibis is a very large part of the image. I made a very conscious effort to put these people in the picture―a Brazilian Indian hidden in the top middle section, a mestizo man to the left―to show all these layers of the history of Brazil, with all its hopes and dreams. The imagery I used was also based upon existing images, which is not always the case.
SD Why are these images important for you?
SB I want to get something specific across. First off, the menacing power of nature; the jungle is way stronger and bigger than anything you can handle. As someone used to European nature especially, you get the feeling that you’re on the losing end. It’s like Twin Peaks. Imagine how it must have felt to a new visitor to South America in the 17th century. Second, I wanted to show how Brazil’s inhabitants have shaped the country. Even a long time ago it was already a mix of different Indian tribes, the Portuguese, Dutch, and Jews; slaves, and slaveholders. They were all rendered by two Dutch painters―Albert Eckhout and Frans Post―who came along with Prince Mauritz of Nassau, who was in charge of a small part of northeastern Brazil ruled by the Dutch for roughly 35 years during the 17th century. They were the first to come to the New World to paint from life, not from hearsay in the confines of their studio back in Europe. And now their subjects peer out at you through this cityscape.
Many more layers of people came after, Eastern Europeans, confederates from the US, all bringing their own histories from wherever they came. Some of the stories I’ve read are amazing: in the early 20th century, Brazil sent agents to Europe to find farmers. They went deeper and deeper into the continent, into Russia and Poland, telling the locals about this country where they’d get 40 acres, a mule, and perfect weather without harsh winters. In case they were worried about the sea voyage, they were told “Not to worry, we’re in the process of building a bridge from Europe to Brazil!” This was printed on leaflets distributed by agents of the Brazilian government. By the time the farmers found their way to Mediterranean or Dutch ports they’d already sold all their possessions and had no idea what to expect. They probably had no way of ever retreating their steps. It’s crazy to imagine a trip with such uncertainty about what the future would bring. The images of Rio that you see in Invasões Holandesas, by the way, show a city that, for the most part, is gone. The Sugarloaf and bay are still recognizable as Rio, though.
SD Talking about taking a trip with such an open horizon, starting out with false promises and high hopes… isn’t that, in a way, similar to your process of building your pieces? You start with a knowable, specifically referential image and then you layer it with other images and ideas thereby obscuring and abstracting it more and more. You end up with something that is both bigger than what you began with, but is also strangely suspended in between knowing and not knowing.
SB Sometimes, yes. Creating an image of the world anew through the process of adding is what I like.
SD I’m interested in the way the work is structured upon the photograph and how you use, and depart from, the implications of the photographic medium. In your work an actual photograph can be there underneath it all but it can also just be blank; in those cases you’ll use black photographic paper as the foundation for your drawings. So the work is experienced through the context of photography even when there isn’t an actual photograph there.
SB Photographs imply truthfulness, they suggest that what appears in them has been recorded. So using photo paper, even if left blank, implies photography. A dot of white ink on a black surface looks like the moon or a star. Even though we know that photography has lied to us since the beginning, we are still conditioned to think that photos are evidence of truths.
I’d been looking for the right image of Brazil for a very long time. I’m married to a Brazilian and I’ve been there often. I’ve heard that in school there they teach children about the short period when the Dutch were there: “As Invasões Holandesas,” the Dutch invasions. People keep telling me, “The Dutch in the North were great (compared to the Portuguese); we wish you guys had stayed.” A strange thing to hear; honestly. I knew little of this history. Historically the Dutch have a liberal image. I’d argue that their openness to diversity and freedom of religion also made a lot of economic sense, it was just good business.
A few years back I bumped into my friend Max Goldfarb, who mentioned that in a flea market upstate he’d seen these pictures that were distributed by the Carnegie Foundation in the early 1900s. He was very kind to buy them for me. It was a few years before I knew what to do with them. A public library or school could write a request to the foundation and would get a box with these, for that time, high-tech images of the world. The images Max gave me were contained in the box of images of Brazil: some were colored by hand, but most of them were in black and white. They were shot between 1889 and the 1930s. Coincidentally, several were of Curitiba, the city where my wife is from; others showed different cities and ports. In my studio one day I was holding up these three large glass slides with images of Rio as a bunch together against the window. They were all upside down and overlapping; the curves of the landscape intersected. That seemed like the image of Brazil I’d been waiting for: Rio is such an iconic city, it’s so central to the idea of Brazil, with is natural shapes, music, and people. you see underneath my drawing is three overlapping images of Rio de Janeiro around 1900. I had those scanned, layered, and printed exactly the way I was holding them.
SD Is this the first time you superimposed images?
SB It’s probably the third or fourth. Usually when there are overlays in my work it’s because the film hasn’t spooled through the camera properly. It’s an old fashioned multiple exposure.
SD So in those works the overlay was a mistake?
SB Yes. I did a commission for the LACMA where the underlying images consisted of a bit of film that hadn’t spooled properly through the camera, so three images overlapped a bit. I already like messing with time by drawing on the photograph, so when you have three photographs…
SD What do you mean by messing with time, or breaking through the layer of time implied in a photograph?
SB Some new science has shown that our memories are being recreated every time we revisit them. Sometimes an image adheres itself to a feeling, a thought. That’s the way I approach my pictures. It’s not about recreating an exact image taken at a precise moment or about creating an image that is fully formed in my head. It’s about what happens around, before, and after the image is taken, and while I work on the image.
So the works don’t consist of flat slivers of time. They are fuller than a moment. By drawing on the photographic image I change everything and add the real component of time. My associations, ideas, and changes of direction―it all finds its way to the picture. If I have more than one photographic image I want to include, I might end up layering them on top of each other, which makes things a bit more obscure and harder to read. But at the same time that confusion can be a more realistic record than just a tenth of a second captured in time, as in a “pure” photograph. This is my way to get out of the one-person perspective; it’s almost as if you were listening to different takes on a place or a moment in time.
SD Do you think that you are making them clearer or that you are turning them into more of what they are, and therefore bringing them closer to the lived experience? It seems that you work with the aspiration that the two-dimensional surface of a photograph, or a drawing or a painting, be able to somehow break out of the stillness of the flat frame and be more like the space of real time and experience.
SB Well, a photograph is a flat thing. By drawing and layering things on top of it you get the sense of looking through it. Especially when you look at a picture that has many details. You as a viewer spend much more time with it. Images change every time you see them. So it’s a different relationship with time again; you’re adding, making the experience more alive. Our days are colored in very strong ways by every little thing that happens to us.
SD Yes, a memory or an insight gleaned before are constantly assaulting the conditions of the exact present moment.
SB You are colored by so much all the time―the things you’ve seen before, the things you’re going to do later. It’s very hard to be in the absolute now. I just want to communicate a sense of the experience of memory and the present. I make most of my pictures in a relatively isolated space that is literally removed from the earlier parts of my experience. I moved here from Holland and moved a few times as a child, so I naturally have a more sentimental relationship with experiences of the past. There is a cut-off point in experience of Holland, though, since I came to New York in 1992. The images of the Netherlands in my mind consist mostly of everything up to that point. Though part of what I see in the Dutch paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for instance, does color my memory. They are historic paintings, sure, but they are also, to me, just pictures from home. The landscape and the light are still the same.
SD The light is the same, as well as a lot of the architecture and even the faces of people. It seems to me that you are talking about the past and the present being fused; not simply coexisting, but actually sharing the same dimensional plane. Your work seems to attempt a “constant present” where everything keeps going and living, nothing slides into the past.
SB Yeah, that’s nice.
SD This experience of memory comes alive through your touch, your hand, and your labor, through your constant accumulation of imagery and pattern. You are really working on the surface―each piece speaks of all the time and care you’ve put into it. It makes me think of when I stand in front of a Holbein painting. His paintings just resound with the utmost amount of devotion, care, and optimism.
SB Oh yeah, every inch of his canvases is touched and caressed.
SD That may be one of the biggest gifts to give to another person, a viewer. Standing in front of a Holbein, swooning from that gift, there is this sense of the constant present―the past comes barreling forward to you, the making of the painting, the artist’s touch is so completely alive, it’s in the room with you. You can feel the actual moments of the painting being made. With your work too, there is so much touch, attention, and care.
SB Often the first thing I hear is, “Oh, that must have taken you a long time! How long does it take you to make a picture?” It’s an obvious thing to wonder about. The underlying photographs I work with don’t have to be great, but I do have to care a lot about the situation they depict, or their content. Whatever potential I see in a photograph I can get out by my working on its surface; sometimes it’s easier when the underlying image is not so great.
SD So when you’re working on a piece, are you really thinking the whole time about the photograph and why you chose it? You’re not drifting off?
SB It’s both. I relate to the photograph in the same way that some people relate to a talisman. I like how people carry an old picture forever in their wallet, how it accumulates time’s wear and tear. It gains meaning this way. I usually like to keep as much of the dirt and cracks in a picture as possible―I’d never Photoshop them away. Creases are a way into the work sometimes.
I have to have a strong connection to what is captured in the photograph―it takes too long and too much energy not to be completely smitten and engaged with the subject matter. That’s my prime motor. If I have a pre-existing image that I’d like to use, say, an image in a painting by Eckhout, for instance, I transfer it by hand, eyeballing it; I don’t use projectors, they make the process boring. It’s like having to work with one eye closed.
I started working on photographs directly with paint and ink because I started off making paintings with photos as source material. So much time was spent just transferring the image to the canvas. The only enjoyable part would come at the end, when I’d give the piece a flourish, making it “gel.” Then I decided to forego the tedious process completely and go straight to the juicy bit: the work on the photographic surface. I like working directly on a print, with all its pitfalls and problems. There’s no way back; you have to dig your way through.
Sometimes there is a sense of transgression, because I manipulate what’s depicted in a photograph by applying inks and paints on the surface. I make tiny marks―dots―by pen, with ink, or brush with paint, one at the time, or by pouring dyes. It can feel mischievous too. I had a real sense of joy with Everything Flows, for instance.
SD Who are the people in this piece?
SB My father and brother. My father looked so young and optimistic. The look in his eyes is full of wonder; I couldn’t keep myself from creating the illusion that he had long hippie hair. He looks supremely high. So, in this case, there was just joy, no guilt involved in completely altering reality. He is actually a pretty straight man; he missed out on the ’70s counterculture, so I gave him a taste of that.
SD That goes back to how you wonder what parts of the pieces are legible to others. Inevitably we can’t see or read what you see.
SB Oddly, my brother thought this was a scary picture. He thought these were people in some kind of a prisoner camp. He hardly recognized himself or my father.
SD This reminds me of something I read about your work: “the photograph underneath casts images into the air that are held spellbound through the act of drawing and painting.” I love that line. There is something particular about the medium of drawing and painting that contributes to an experience in which meanings are “spellbound in the air.” Perhaps because they do not fully deliver the concrete and the tangible into the viewer’s hand, but rather impart an intangible sense of realness. The image of your father that you imagined for him, for instance, is held above the “real” image of him that is cast into the air and held in this suspension by your drawing. In the process of working you create this other reality with see-through layers of dimensionality hovering above and around the “real.”
SB Photography has always had a magical component. It was a parlor trick shown in county fairs when it was first invented. Most people relate to a photograph as they do with a mystical object; it’s just that with digital images there are thousands and thousands of them.
SD If you have this mystical relationship with the photographs, then why would you defile them, so to speak?
SB Often there is something in there that I want to bring out, something that is not necessarily apparent in the picture. We interpret and change and actually re-craft all those mental images from the past all the time. It’s the same with my work. I don’t always use a picture taken in the past, though. The works where I work on a black surface are an important exception.
SD Right, like the piece that you’re working on over there.
SB Yeah, it’s the picture of a slave trader. It’s almost a parallel universe. It’s a bit of a trick and it’s a very freeing. I shot a picture in a monastery in Olinda, Brazil, which had been destroyed by the Dutch and rebuilt by the Portuguese later. It’s just a view out of a window, there’s hardly anything there. The man I drew in actually might have been there.
In some other works, the photographic paper is totally black, but there is no way for the viewer to actually know that. This gives me a giant amount of freedom: it feels as if I could run through the whole history of humanity with a functioning camera. I can jump to Elizabethan England and take a picture, so to speak, of the queen. With enough skill, I’m able to fake it and trick the eye into thinking that the drawing is a real photograph.
SD The image of the African-born slave trader that you drew and transposed onto the photographic paper is actually one that Eckhout painted.
SB I wanted to do a portrait and it was almost a technical issue to get it to look like it was out of a photograph. It’s based on an original painting made by Eckhout in Brazil. The original painting is not too realistic; it’s relatively flat looking. He looks more real in my picture than he does in the painting, in part because he’s on black and white photographic paper.
So going back to your idea of the constant present in terms of Holbein’s paintings, (and I would add Memling)―in them, time merges. When I’m look at their work, I’m not looking at paintings anymore. I’m looking and thinking, These people were just like us. I can never get over that. You see the stubble on the chin. The human condition never changes; it’s almost frustrating that humans never seem to―
SD That’s a beautiful insight.
SB I like this connecting with images of things from the past. Still life paintings are interesting to me, yet they’re never as gripping to me because although they’re technically amazing, for me to get really excited I need―
SD The face, portraits.
SB People. Or at least that’s what I’m starting to get more excited about. When I first started making paintings, they were all basically self-portraits. I had never been to art school and I didn’t know what I was doing. People would ask me why I was doing them, and I was like, “Well, what else should I paint? What do I know? Isn’t it true that when you look at people you can’t but wonder what they are thinking, who they are?”
SD Starting with yourself.
SB Or you could stare at other people and just look at their eyeballs and―
SD Try to figure them out.
SB Also, there’s this romantic idea that you can see life out of somebody’s eyes, that there is where a connection with others happens. But what’s there is just eyeballs in a head.
SD That’s what it is in Memling and Holbein. It’s not just that the people in those paintings are the same as us, it’s that we feel the artist looking and trying and pursuing a “truth.” We can sense the complete connection and engagement of the artist.
SB Yeah, but I also feel the presence of the sitters. I see the guy sitting in that room. I see him having a girlfriend, a wife, kids. I can see the glimmer in his eyes. I’m enveloped in that little fold of time.
Look for Bremer’s work in BOMB 112’s First Proof.