Sebastiaan Bremer: Ave Maria @Edwynn Houk

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 black and white photographic works, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against cream colored walls in the main gallery space, the smaller side room, and the entry area. All of the works are hand painted archival inkjet prints on matte paper with pigment ink, made in 2016 and 2017. Physical sizes range from roughly 7×5 to 37×50 (or reverse) and all of the works are unique. (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: The long history of overpainting in photography has its origins in the straightforward impulse to add color to monochrome imagery. Not satisfied with the nuances of black and white, delicate hand-applied color was commonly added to 19th century daguerreotypes, tintypes, and albumen prints, ranging from the simple isolated additions of rosy cheeks or pastel flowers to the intricate life-like colorizations of entire images and scenes.

But once the dividing line between media had been crossed, it was inevitable that the practice of overpainting would expand beyond this initial well-defined purpose. Once a paintbrush was allowed to reinterpret what the camera had captured, new avenues for creative expression were suddenly opened, ranging from the controlled and meticulous to the gestural and improvisational. Overpainting can now be a means of elaborate decoration and embellishment, a physical, handcrafted reaction to the underlying image, or even a vehicle for a complete mixed-media transformation of both content and aesthetics, and contemporary artists as diverse as Peter Beard, Sarah Anne Johnson, Nobuyoshi Araki, and Gerhard Richter (among many others) have used overpainting to push their photographs in unexpected directions. The practice has even jumped into the digital age, with digital painting and mark making taking the place of the traditional materials.

Against this backdrop, the Dutch artist Sebastiaan Bremer has spent the better part of the past two decades exploring his own unique brand of overpainting photographs. Using family snapshots and his own imagery as the various starting points for his efforts, he has modified those photographs with consistently painstaking precision, often generating colored spots that mimic flares of light or spattered pigment or intense filigrees of densely drawn dots and lines that swirl into roiling, almost psychedelic flights of fancy. Each intervention has taken the form of a carefully plotted overlaid response, each project forcing him to reconsider the personal associations and resonances of the original imagery.

While flowers and tropical greenery have been the basis for his works in the past few years, in Bremer’s newest series Ave Maria, he opts for something far more intimate, revisiting images made some twenty years ago of his wife-to-be in their East Village apartment. The pictures were taken as she lounged in the bathtub surrounded by white tile, her hair tied up in a loose bun and her nude body covered by shimmering water. Her playful poses, along with the seductive expressions on her face, tell a story of energetic young love, the openness of the moment still very much present in the photographs. They are the kind of shared pictures that usually stay hidden away, a collaborative expression not meant for wider pubic consumption.

Using these images as raw material, Bremer has alternately enlarged the images and cropped them down, creating large scale in-the-tub scenes and smaller hands, feet, and faces, which he has then printed in washed out tones that feel like fading memories. From there, he has meticulously covered the surfaces of the prints with infinitesimally small black dots of ink, creating networks of rippled lines that recall the nested curves of topographical maps. Depending on how far apart the individual dots are spaced, they can expand into whiteness or cluster into blackness, allowing Bremer to create the sense of depth similar to a pencil drawing (or the dot portraits that grace the pages of the Wall Street Journal). From afar, the pictures start to break down into a shimmering fuzzy blur, only to resolve into impossibly complex detail up close.

Aside from the intricately tactile surface textures that are the result of Bremer’s efforts, the reason that all this process is intriguing is the level of obsessiveness that has been applied to the task. In the large works, literally hours of time must have been spent carefully making each and every mark – with no stray errors, smudges or mislaid dots (not unlike the perfection of Shirin Neshat’s tiny lines of calligraphy). This leads us to thinking of Bremer having an intimate dialogue with each of these pictures, patiently tracing the contours and tonalities of the underlying image and expanding the forms into sinuous undulating tapestries of decoration. Given the personal emotion and physical attraction tied up in the photographs, the process of effectively recreating and reliving them must have been both quietly meditative and intensely evocative. The end artworks are like offerings to his wife, or poignant celebrations of her, or simply deeply felt remembrances.

In these new works, Bremer has gone beyond impressive decoration and wild trips of the imagination, pulling himself back to something more elemental and personal, and as a result, his efforts feel more powerfully authentic. Here craft becomes a kind of methodical tribute, where honoring the connection to his subject is a reaffirmation of the artist’s love.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $7000 to $32000, with many already sold. Bremer’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2023 (no website link). Hardcover (21.7 x 28 cm), 98 pages, with 58 black and white photographs. Design by the artist. (Cover and spread ... Read on.

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