An Interview with Rachel Berkowitz, Los Angeles
I was introduced to Rachel Berkowitz’ practice through a mutual friend who owns one of her paintings. It was during a trip to Washington D.C. last year that I was first captivated by a large painting hanging over the couch of my friend’s cozy one bedroom apartment. The painting was an abstract composition of a unicorn galloping through a scene of pink and blue visions with a large crystal dominating the centre right of the composition.
Rachel Berkowitz was born and raised in London before moving to Los Angeles to attend UCLA for her Bachelors in Fine Art. After spending a short time in Italy, Rachel moved back to Los Angeles where she is currently working as a full-time artist specialising in painting, photography, and print making.
Sondra Kinney: Why did you choose art as your major profession?
Rachel Berkowitz: As cheesy as this may sound, creating art truly is my vocation. I was an imaginative child, always sketching the people and places around me, creating new forms and dreaming up new worlds. Over time, as my skills as an artist improved, I realised that I was able to express myself best through art. I pursued a BA in Fine Art at UCLA, and the rigour of art school taught me to enjoy the process of discovery, the experimentation and the construction of creative work. Right now, my artistic practice is exploring the concepts of luck and fate, chance and choice. I am interested in how people seek to shape their destiny in the face of uncertainty through objects, symbols, and especially social interactions.
SK: I know you have lived in the UK, America, and Italy, do you think your work as an artist has been influenced by your multicultural upbringing?
RB: I was fortunate to grow up in London, a great city for the arts. Visiting museums with my family or on school trips was a regular thing to do and I was never without my sketchbook and pencils. This exposure to historic and contemporary art gave me a good grounding in art history. London attracts people from all over the world and its diverse mix of cultures inspired my own art.
During college, I spent a semester in Florence, studying Italian Renaissance art and architecture and learning Italian. The city’s history, particularly the lasting influence of the Medici family, fascinated me. With great art all around, my time in Florence was a highly productive and creative experience.
Moving from London to Los Angeles has meant adapting to new surroundings. The new imagery and ways of being have made their way into my painting and photography. Although I still draw inspiration from Europe, this city has challenged me to experiment more and create my own visual history.
SK: You work in the mediums of photography, print making, and painting. Which do you prefer and why?
RB: That’s a tough question, but painting is my preferred medium. There is absolutely nothing more satisfying to me than applying paint to the canvas, physically creating forms with brush strokes.
I was also classically trained as a musician, and I find that producing paintings is like composing a piece of music. The boldness and certainty required to create large scale paintings is what I love to practice most.
SK: Your biography states that your artistic practice concentrates on social interactions within different spaces. How do you think these ideas come across in your art and how do you think they differ from painting to photography?
RB: While living in Los Angeles, I have felt compelled to make artwork from direct experience, thus visually representing social interactions within different spaces. The creative process starts by immersing myself in different social situations. Let me to give you a few examples.
In my street photography, I allow my subjects to become aware of the lens, but I aim to capture moments of vulnerability and perfect spontaneity. A recent example was a documentary project of my grandmother (“Gloria”) in her house a few months before she died.
In my fine art photography, I construct the scene along with my subject, and the forms, lighting and colours are carefully controlled but indicative of our social interaction. I applied this process to my “Fairfax Royalty” series, which was shot in and around the streets and alleyways of Fairfax Avenue. Working with my subjects, and informed by Renaissance portraiture, the images capture the Kings and Queens of a neighbourhood in transition.
Within my paintings, I choose to work abstractly, expressing concepts that are more personal and evocative of situations, rather than displaying a particular moment or experience. The project “Gamble” is a trio of abstract paintings inspired by the risk-taking behaviours of gamblers in Las Vegas. The paintings use surrealistic imagery from slot machines, religious symbols and ancient texts, touching on themes of temptation, superstition, fortune and faith. The colours and composition mimic the state of mind of the slot’s players, commonly known as “Machine Zone”.
SK: Do you think your art deals with the ever-increasing digital sphere that is shaping our social interactions?
RB: In both the “Fairfax Royalty” and “Gamble” projects, I observed people interacting with digital technology as they tested their luck or calculated their risks. In the “Gamble” paintings, I am directly commenting on the temptation of the slot machines. Recently, I began exploring these interactions further by creating digital canvases that incorporate moving images. This experimentation is only beginning, and I am now planning an immersive project with paintings and technology. I will be collaborating with a technology team called @spacepost that will be making my paintings into virtual reality experiences.
SK: Who inspires you?
RB: My art teachers at UCLA definitely shaped the way I now think about and create fine art. I had inspiring professors who work as practicing fine artists, such as Lari Pittman, Catherine Opie, James Welling and Jacob Samuel. I continue to be influenced by the European Abstract Expressionist painters, as well as the Surrealist painters, Rene Magritte in particular. My overall favourite painter is Gustav Klimt because I have never seen another artist use the colour gold in such a striking, delicate, yet wholly luminous manner. Klimt’s gold leaf techniques within his ‘golden phase’ takes my breath away when viewed up close; when I saw these paintings in Vienna for the first time when I was 14, I was compelled to turn my drawings into paintings.
SK: What message does your art convey to your audience?
RB: At the moment, my artwork references life choices, decision-making and temptation. Through intensive colour choices, shapes and forms, I try to construct paintings that are abstract but accessible. What is most important to me is that my audience is able to interact with the visual content. I want the meaning of the art to be grasped from the work itself.
SK: How do you find your art career in Los Angeles compared to the possible opportunities in more art centred cities such as New York or London?
RB: The contemporary art scene here in Los Angeles is flourishing – it’s possibly the best place for an emerging artist to be making art, exhibiting new work, and building a community. Both the critics and the public are open-minded to new ideas and art forms. I’m pleased to be working in Los Angeles right now.
SK: What advice do you have for those beginning to collect art for first time?
RB: I recommend that people collect art that speaks to them personally and choose pieces that highlight the years in which they were made. When artwork can reference the time period it was produced, it holds greater potential to be considered significant and valuable.
SK: What is your next project?
RB: My next project is a continuation of my most recent painting series, titled “Gamble”. I am developing my conceptual slot machine paintings into works that reference symbols of good fortune, historic materials and objects, and my research draws from a variety of sources such as Medieval illuminations, gemstones and ancient amulets. As noted above, I am also experimenting with digital canvases and planning an immersive piece that involves virtual reality.
You can find more of Rachel’s work here: http://www.rachelberkowitzart.com/
Interview by Sondra Kinney