Local painter Lee Berger doesn't want his work to be pigeonholed. It's why the 44-year-old art scene veteran has attempted to change up with his visual style multiple times since first becoming an artist in 1992. Within the past two decades he's gone from creating simple-looking charcoal nudes to incredibly detailed doll-like paintings to geometrically complex abstract works.
And then there's Berger's latest series, currently on display at the Icehouse through First Friday, which takes the painter into unfamiliar territory. Namely, delving into sociological issues and the relationships between mankind and his environment.
Seven of his latest painting, which are featured in the downtown Phoenix venue's Silver Room, embody his feeling about the role that human play in society were a bit of a challenge in both their content and creation. He says they are not only a departure from his previous works, but involved a "exhausting process" to create.
"This series that I've done is less cutesy and is a lot more involved with social [issues] and its just about me ranting in my paintings," Berger says. "They're more about how everything that someone does can affect society or their particular environment in some way. When people think of environment, they think of nature, but I'm talking about the other meaning of environment, like their realm in which a person exists or surroundings."
Berger says his newest works also touch upon relationships, but not necessarily of the interpersonal kind. When describing the creation process behind his newest paintings, the artist discusses how they pertain to the relationships between a person and society as a whole or the role of man versus nature.
"[It's] about relationships we have with individuals or groups in society not connected to us personally or even semi-personally," Berger writes in his artist statement for the show. "These relationships and these paintings, come with reflection on societal directions and ideas."
To wit: His painting The Reluctant Totem features three human-like figures stacked on top of each other in a column where the individual in the middle looks distraught with having to hold up the person on the bottom while support another on its shoulders.
"He's supporting both ends, which, to me, makes one think of the middle class having to support both the poor and the rich," Berger says. "The others reap the benefits of their work, which is why we have a shrinking middle class. Or its also has to do with the creative class - like the artists or the inventors - who's work benefits everyone else."
Meanwhile, another new work, The Arizonan, depicts the effects of urban sprawl as a golden wand wipes away blooming desert cacti and leaves cookie cutter housing in its place.
"They deal with more social issues, I don't want to say political because they aren't political, but they have to do with issues like urban sprawl or America's value system deteriorating and things like that."
Berger admits that besides delving into new subject matter, his latest works also were created with materials he's never used before, like the crushed-up foodstuffs or items to create the backgrounds of each of the four-foot-square paintings.
For example, Untitiled, which uses leftover green and black tea that he mixed and layered with acrylic paints and sealant onto the canvas. Meanwhile, The Arizonan involved grinding up seed pods from mesquite trees in a food processor for that painting's background.
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"The mesquite pods were exhausting because the pods don't grind [easily]. I had to boil them and get 'em soft and grind em in small batches in my food processor and remove the seeds and then reboil them and get all the honey out," Berger says. "On the surface of these new paintings there is a juxtaposition of the raw colors of the natural substances or substrates that have been incorporated into the work with the more strong and direct paint colors added to the canvases."
The closing reception for Lee Berger's exhibition takes place from 7 to 11 p.m. on Friday at the Icehouse. Admission is free.