At first glance, it is impossible to overlook the vitality of Kate Bergin’s compositions. Animals seem poised to leap from the canvas, birds to take flight. And then, little by little, more details emerge: an upturned tea-cup, a pair of spectacles, a tiny revolver and teaspoons - so many teaspoons! - some balanced precariously on tabletop edges, others raised aloft trophy-like and yet more attached to beaks, horns and feet by dainty little pieces of string.
Tell us a bit about yourself, both as a person, and as an artist. Do you remember the moment you fell in love with art, or was it a gradual process?
There’s a point, (I’m not sure when) when the artist and the person becomes inseparable. One is constantly feeding into the other and one is often excusing the behaviour of the other as well. It’s a tousle between living a life as expected (particularly when you have children) and also living the life that is demanded of as an artist. It’s a balancing act that is often reflected in my paintings. The sense that the domestic space can be overrun by the unexpected and sometimes we have to make the most of where we find ourselves. After graduating from the Victorian College of the Arts in 1992 my husband Mark Stewart also an artist and graduate from VCA moved to Cairns in 1995 as a way of disconnecting ourselves from the familiar and having an adventure in a completely different environment.
In Cairns I discovered the work of Ellis Rowan (1848-1922) and her incredible paintings of rows and rows of butterflies and moths. I loved that connection between the perfection of the botanical studies but also the abstraction of their formatting with perhaps just one cheeky angled butterfly at the bottom. But it was really her sense of adventure and absolute commitment to finding these specimens by travelling to remote areas such as New Guinea that intrigued me. I was beginning to understand that the life of an artist was to be an all consuming one. Going back a bit further I remember in 1987 the National Gallery of Victoria presented “John Brack: A Retrospective Exhibition” that featured his series of pencil paintings where he used still life in an animated way that was to have more of an impact on my work that I knew at the time. It’s interesting looking back and seeing those connections now and how curious it is that some things resonate almost inexplicably at the time and resurface later as an enormous influence.
Can you tell us about your process, from the beginning to the completion of a work?
Generally, I’ll start with a main character and build the painting up around it - the tabletop acting like a stage where I move the creatures around. On some level it’s not unlike the traditional still lives of Morandi. But unlike Morandi’s selection of jugs and vases I need an enormous amount of creatures in different sizes and colours to create the balance and movement around the piece.
The composition is the most important element in the beginning. I roughly sketch in the larger animals first straight onto the canvas then I start the placement of the other creatures and objects around it. It’s then a matter of making the composition a believable space and creating a convincing relationship between the animals and objects. It’s also important for me that the animals don’t become anthropomorphous even though they’re in a domestic space with human objects they need to retain their own identity or nobility as animals for the paintings to work.
While the birds and animals are painted from photographs that I’ve taken I also paint from life which helps me to understand the spatial elements. The telephone and tabletop are from life as are the teaspoons and spectacles. I also sometimes add a peeled apple which challenges my painting ability. It was often used in earlier times as a sign of artistic virtuosity as it must be painted in one sitting before it rots which is a particular challenge up here in the subtropics during summer.
I can’t really say I have a particular method for the painting itself it’s just a matter of layers and layers of oil paint until the textures feel right. Having the taxidermy nearby is still helpful for that. Often I’ve referenced the legs and paws of my taxidermied fox to help me create tiger or lion paws that are hidden in long grasses in my reference photographs.
Can you talk about the body of work you are currently showcasing with FINEPRINT co? What did it evolve from, and where do you see this series going?
“Tabletop Variations” has been an ongoing series. The title comes from ‘"The Goldberg Variations”, JS Bach's celebrated work for harpsichord; a series of diverse melodic lines unified by a single bass line and chordal structure. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” closely reflect my own approach to composition. These tabletop variations transpose the musical form onto the visual plane - the tabletop provides the 'bass line' and the birds, animals and various household objects become the “variations”. My discovery of Ellis Rowan led me to think of a new way to create a series of un-still lives. A journey to Cooktown to meet with a butterfly collector was the beginning. An offer from James Cook University in Cairns to use their bird and mammal collection was another development.
After 5 years in Far North Queensland, in 2000 it was time to go back to Melbourne but the seeds had been planted and I approached Museum Victoria to access their storerooms and started focusing on birds as well as butterflies. There was almost a Darwinian development to animals after that! Over time though I found taxidermy to be too limiting and felt constricted by the poses created by others. I wanted live animals and an interaction with them that I felt would give more life to the paintings.
I feel it’s this connection that has changed my work. Spending hours watching animals and how they interact with each other has given me more understanding and respect for them that I hope comes through in the paintings. I can almost feel the painting being made when I’m in front of an animal.
I see this series continuing and possibly taking on more of a chaotic note with the animals becoming more animated or interactive with each other but perhaps I’ll need my own zoo for that!
How do you navigate the art world? Which current art world trends are you following?
There’s definitely no compass for navigating the art world. In my painting “The Navigator” I leave it up to a meerkat to find the way…some days this seems like a good idea! But seriously it’s good to have an understanding of what’s going on but to find your own path around it somehow. It’s never good to follow anything specific if you want to achieve something unique.
With a knowledge of art history you can connect with past threads and by combining those with contemporary ideas somehow you can find a voice that resonates with others. I find myself swinging between the Venetian paintings of Canaletto (1697-1768) and the contemporary artworks of Damien Hirst. My painting “The Possibility of Death in the Mind of Major Mitchell” plays on Hirst’s
title of a preserved shark in a tank from1991(the original shark interestingly caught off Hervey Bay), “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”. I feel this artwork takes the genre of still life or Natura Morte to its ultimate point.
But perhaps it’s Hirst’s, “Isolated Objects Swimming in the Same Direction for the Purpose of Understanding” (also from 1991) with fish suspended individually in separate glass boxes that attempt to speak of our contemporary world - our divisions but our general seeking of the same goals. It’s both a positive and negative, a conundrum that all of us, not just artists confront or encounter in some way.