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Text Adri Markus about Sharon van den Berg

Real Secret


Anyone leaving Sharon van den Berg’s studio will not fail to notice the little gem next to the door: an object-like work she’s called Real Secret. I think it is the most strategic representation of her world of thought, one that both surprises and confronts you and disrupts you at the same time. Because you don’t see the little artwork until you leave the room, it’s as if she is teasing you as you’re about to say your goodbyes: ‘What you saw is not what it is…’ 

Face to face 

The workspace is something like a cabinet of curiosities, with nooks and crannies in which visually diverse work adorns white walls in various arrangements. Although it is a brightly lit studio, it feels like a labyrinth in which it’s easy to get lost. Perhaps that’s why a slight hesitation to enter is felt. Once you take the plunge, the work forces you to respond. But how? 


Not every artist feels comfortable being face-to-face with their audience. Van den Berg, she says, can handle it better these days. She’s in a stronger position than she has been in the past, is more attached to her work, and enjoys hearing how someone else perceives it. After all, art is about lighting a spark in the audience. For that reason, her ‘tell me what you expect from me …, should I leave?’ is an unexpected question. And even though I’d like to look at the work by myself – that is how I enjoy museums most too – I shrug and say ‘No, imagine that!’ So, she stays and makes a pot of tea. We keep it face-to-face and talk while we look at the work. Many of her sentences start with a ‘Yes’, directly followed by a ‘No’. 

Badgasten (Seaside Visitors) 

Her work has many forms of expression, both in subject matter and in technique. On her blog, everything is categorized under different headers. Badgasten refers to her youth in The Hague, where her parents received many visitors on a near daily basis, not unlike tourists boldly taking possession of seaside resorts in summer. For years she had been planning to use these Polaroids taken by her father of their illustrious guests. They were preserved in the family’s photobooks, from where Van den Berg carefully studied and copied them into drawings which are arranged in her studio’s wall now. The small works, drawn by pencil, depict people in her old home. Visitors of various kinds, men, women, here and there a child, each with their own pose in a living room setting. 


Nowadays, we don’t know any better than having the ability to instantly see the result of a photo you have just taken. Back then, Polaroids were revolutionary for this ability - and it was something that visitors frequently did, says van den Berg. This phenomenon of looking back on the spot, while one is still in the moment, is something that intrigues the artist. Perhaps it has to do with her way of looking, with her camera-like gaze at what is in front of her. But why does she so accurately copy these small pictures into drawings, what moved her to do this? Is this a conscious reliving of what happened to her subconsciously (she was only a child) around her back then? Does she express something that has not been said by her before, something that she couldn’t have known? 

Literal Memories

One can claim all sorts of things about art.  Words can be used to give direction to what you see. We talk about this in her studio. She is great with words - and she makes pictures, from that characteristic Literal Memories was born. They are small watercolor drawings with a simple single word written above them. She chose this theme already back in her days as a student at the art academy. The work is reminiscent of earlier emblems, the so-called ‘praatjes met plaatjes’ (talking pictures), with their metaphorical representations and moralizing captions. But are the drawings here compatible with the words that accompany them? This is not a wisely imparted lesson, is it a literal memory? How literal is that memory really and what stays with you more: a word, an image, a color, a mood? This duality of word and image is complex. That, among other things, fascinates Van den Berg. She wants to publish Literal Memories and Badgasten in a book someday. Again the question is, why?  I am guessing when I think of the answer myself: perhaps it has to do with ‘wanting to be complete,’ bundling the complexity into a whole. Difficult, because her work consists of more than the image, there is always that conscience that thinks about everything too. How do you bundle thoughts that cannot be captured?


She looks as if she is listening to something as she chews words, almost tastes them. In almost all of her work, words play a role. Often a work consists only of the title - the words acting as an image. Sometimes words are painted away but are still vaguely visible. Words may guide, but according to her they also prove to have little value on their own, for over time they lose their power. My eye catches a thoughtfully italic written text. She once came across it somewhere, saw the humor in it, and copied it. It describes the word ‘permanent’ and thus aptly illustrates temporality:


‘Although the name indicates, that the wave remains forever, 

it is a fact, that after some time the wave is gone anyway.’


The little text is part of works to which she attaches the designation Lyrics. Smooth scribbles and more elaborate little drawings, haphazardly attached to a wall, with the occasional call sign in between or just a patch of words. And here and there a pre-existing text, which she appropriated simply by transcribing it. She has dedicated a little in-between room in her studio that looks like a laboratory. It also looks something like a kitchen here, the place where unusual ingredients are combined, resulting in the kind of dishes that make you think: mmm.... tasty, but what is it?!

Honesty of Niks (Honesty of/or Nothing)

I tell her I don't understand her work - and yet I get it. We look at another piece of paper among the numerous sketches taped to the wall. On it the loosely written phrase 'what you get from far is good'. I read, ‘storytelling’. (This is a Dutch expression - as in, the grass is always greener on the other side). She says, amused, that's what it's about, about the art of storytelling. For years she did not have her story ready; it was foreign to her to be involved in painting from an artistic perspective of her own. She encountered it with colleagues but thought: does it work that way? Not really with her. It made her feel inadequate. Those who cannot tell what they are doing can come across as somewhat vague, even if they know so well what they are doing. She is indeed a person who is good with words, but she does not use language to explain. With her words, she shows what cannot be said. What drives her cannot simply be expressed. Moreover, she desires honesty: ‘Honesty of Niks’.

Picture Paintings

Her Picture Paintings show vistas on small, softly tinted oil paintings. They are depictions of exotic landscapes and southern cities with highways, streets, buildings, and here and there the interior of a cafe bar. Sometimes clearly photographed from behind the car window during holidays. Looking through the lens of the camera, the artist observed her surroundings. Back from the trip, with those images sharp in her memory, the photographs support that which Van den Berg wanted to preserve, so she turns them into wide panoramas in a miniature format. The pictures offer hushed sightseeing, with no humans anywhere. This work, like the Polaroid photos, was also created second-hand (though she shot these photos herself). Perhaps this is the reason for pleasant sobriety: as if the sizzle of the sunny south has cooled once back home in the studio.


Although she always works from observation, she likes to be surprised by what emerges on the canvas in the process. This happens most often in her Paintings because in these works she allows herself a little more freedom and does not work towards an image. Sometimes the painting falls apart along the way. For example, there were once bunnies on a canvas but they looked too frivolous. She calls this painting a struggle with herself, as fun as it is frustrating. She is concerned with an atmosphere ‘as you experience things, it cannot be captured in words,’ something you only experience by seeing it painted in front of you. Each canvas, she says, has its own will, its own awkwardness, its own capriciousness that even she, as the maker, has to deal with. These paintings in particular made me hesitate to enter her studio, and these very canvases demand a response. But which one? 


From a charged darkness loom images, soft in hue. The black frames an interior, a bed, a road, an architectural line; it gives it direction and heaviness. Also palpable is the unfathomability into which you fall away, for no reason. Perhaps it is all less heavy-handed, much more light-hearted than I experience it, and you are led astray by both maker and canvas. For me as a viewer, it doesn't get any easier. This work is reminiscent of theater, the tense anticipation in the room as the lights dim and the play begins. I recall an evocative sentence on her blog: Meanwhile at the unseen stage. Easy enough? No! For what do I see when it cannot be seen, what am I to discover here? Does such a painting become a mirror for those who look or does it want to be a riddle?

Real Secret

My first impression of her activities dates back to 2007. Together with artist Stef Kreymborg, I visited her in a former studio. I remember her seriousness, the slightly surprised, open gaze she rested on us expectantly. I also remember the desolate look of the location in which her work was created as if it were created from nothing. She had only just moved into the space, first channeling her private existence after her academy days, and had just started working seriously as a painter. It was not yet a big deal, she thought. She spoke without embellishment and did not make what she did bigger, rather small. Even then she talked about fleeting sketches that you rarely found in her paintings; images that disappear again but all turn out to be necessary to give the painting an existence. 


Pondering what concerns her and what her imagery consists of, I leave the studio and walk past the single gem again. Is this what she shows me: something that emerges laboriously or threatens to slowly disappear; that which does not surface, that which has long since perished but of which a vague notion remains? She leaves me guessing. Am I supposed to understand what an artist makes? It is the question. Especially if she undergoes the process of searching and does not already know in advance what may emerge. Karel Appel also suggested with his ‘I just mess around’ - not knowing what he was doing, but was that so?

Real or not

My real name is Joan. This sentence posted on her blog has the allure of a confession, questioning her identity: who is she, really? But then also the question: who are you, who are we? Although this may seem to be the case, Sharon van den Berg's work is not a game, not a play, not just a gimmick. Rather, it is an unmasking of what is truly 'real'. And that alone is a discovery. But directly the images contradict, they do not want to be exposed. It is the artist's right to be disconcerted, to escape from explanations, from the desire to explain. And so I am silenced as I search for stories, want to capture a world. Hmm... Real Secret. I am left with the impression that what has not shown itself is the real secret. But whether it is true? It remains secret.


Adri Markus

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