Andrea Bergart

Andrea Bergart
October 24, 2014 Nick Bentgen
RIDGEWOOD, QUEENS – OCTOBER 2014

by Nick Bentgen 

Andrea Bergart’s mural adds a lush new layer to the chaos in Queens.

Her refreshingly nimble work runs the length of a chain link fence at Fresh Pond and Metropolitan.  It’s a strangely perfect setting for the installation.  Skaters and old ladies pass joyful dashes of color on their way to somewhere else, while the corner’s other institutions– a bank, a bus stop, a CVS, and a car wash all compete for the prize of Most Garish And Omnipresent Signage.

“There’s never a dull moment over there,” Andrea tells me warmly.  Indeed, the cars keep coming, and the bus stop draws a sure-fire crowd.  The Department of Transportation recently enlisted Andrea to brighten the block.  Commuters can get a glimpse of wide, wild brushstrokes, paint splatters and polka-dots, through layers of dense stop-and-go traffic.  Swish Swash, as she named the painting, is the intersection’s radiant standout.

“I love that element of seeing a hand-marked image at that scale in the landscape.  It’s this elbow that’s flooded with cars.  I wanted to continue that movement.”  Andrea tells me over tea.  I had ridden to the house as a fall wind blew into Ridgewood.  Her kitchen is a place where meals are made– an inviting, small room on the second floor.  Her studio on the floor just below is filled with work on canvas, silk, clothing, and beaded necklaces.

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Mural & Studio Photos by
: Nick Bentgen
Cement Truck Photo by: Joe Ballweg

Andrea Bergart Cement Mixer

“With that mural I was really interested in seeing my brush stroke and how it dried.  The evidence of the hand is so important, in that piece especially.  It’s exciting to see that in people’s lives I guess.  Someone made this. Even though it was printed on vinyl, it doesn’t matter.  It still shows that it was created.”

I met Andrea while I was prepping a music video for Sinkane.  I became obsessed with getting one of her painted cement trucks into a dance sequence that featured a high school step squad. I spotted the truck months ago, careening around a corner in Bushwick– a pink and blue rotating optical illusion.  Andrea painted it with my friend, the artist Morgan Blair.  It was the third in a series of trucks; all functional, spinning, travelling art installations.  

United Transit Mix gave Andrea a shot at painting her first truck a year ago, and now the cement company proudly owns five that feature her handiwork.  They operate all over the city and have become something of an Instagram phenomenon.  Each snapshot raises the question– why can’t every cement truck be a mobile art show?

Probably because the trucks are a shit-ton of work to handpaint.  She laughs, “Yeah.  The cement truck, man.  It’s always bigger than I think.  Every time.  I’m always turning it and being like, “Ahh fuck.  It’s still there.  Still blank surface.”

[full conversation & Sinkane music video below]

The Full Conversation:

NB:  I watched Style Wars last night.  I had never seen it.

AB:  Oh my God isn’t it so good?

NB:  I can’t believe I had never seen that movie before.

AB:  I know.  That’s how I felt when I saw it.

NB:  It has possibly the all-time greatest soundtrack ever.

AB:  Unreal.  And it’s so interesting now to watch it, when… Have you been on the L Train recently?  Like Youtube or Vimeo has covered the outside of the train and the inside…

NB:  You should just write “CAP” all over it. 

AB:  Yeah!  Why can’t we have, you know, art in there instead of… this stuff from these corporations? …Anyway.

NB:  This isn’t a new concept, but if you put your art out on the street, it’s going to get drawn on, it’s gonna fall apart.  That’s an interesting thing to embrace.  Do you like that experience of seeing your stuff fall apart?

AB:  Yeah.  I mean.  I’m impartial to it.  I just accept that it’s going to.  I’m okay with the work having a life, and then when it’s done, maybe I’ll paint a different design on top of it.  I want the work to decay and be on the street.  I’m not denying the fact that the truck is going to a construction site and pouring out cement.  It’s not this precious object that I want to leave pristine.  It’s interesting– after doing the trucks, I’m seeing everyday things as cement truck shapes.  Like the way they put papers in my front door every day or like, nail designs.  I’ve always thought of the trucks like beads.

NB:  You’ve talked about working with beads before you paint– transforming bead designs into paintings.  Sounds like a crazy amount of work.

AB:  When I lived in Ghana, I studied patterns found on beads.  And so with the cement trucks, I think about one pattern that’s circular that can rotate, like a bead, you know?

NB:  Right.

AB:  But also, in my studio I make these necklaces.  How I string them is like what I’m thinking about– different color blocking ideas and different colors reacting together.  It informs color choices that I make intuitively later in my paintings.  It’s almost like a warm-up or a practice.

NB:  It must give a certain amount of structure to the whole process.

AB:  Exactly.  It kinda focuses me on color.

NB:  It kinda blows my mind how many different kinds of surfaces you can work on, as a visual artist.  Like the baby onesie.

AB:  Oh yeah.  Well, this is– I’ve been doing these Solar Fast paintings right now, like I just did this one today.  The Sun sets what it sees, the UV rays set the ink.  And I had extra Solar Fast laying around so I’ve been making these baby things for my friends who are having babies.

[She points to another canvas.]

This painting’s more symmetrical, but I’m still composing it the way I would compose some of my other paintings.  Just using an abstract symbol that everyone kind of relates to immediately.

NB:  Yeah tell me about that.  I saw pictures of money and hamburgers and weird haircuts and nails.

AB:  Oh yeah my instagram feed!  Yeah I get obsessed.  I like to work in series.  So the cement trucks are like a series.  And the money prints.  I’m interested in the money, right now. Like this thing that’s also part of the street, found on the street, everyone relates to it.  Advertising in my neighborhood and in Brooklyn is so money-focused.  You see like Get Money Now, Cash Now– everywhere, when you start looking for it.  And I just yeah I want to respond to that.  Just the same way that I pick up a lot of trends on the street.  And colorways.  Anywhere from a new pattern that Nike is using, or like, Air Jordans, whatever it is.  A lot of my inspiration comes from just looking at people on the train and what they’re wearing.  And also what’s on the ground.  Like, gum or splatter or, y’know, coins.  I love when I find crushed Capri Sun.  I love seeing that, like a flat image.

NB: Dude, Capri Sun, like I’m pretty sure that stuff is toxic.

AB: Yeah it’s terrible! But the image is awesome. The silver of it is similar to something you’d find with coins on the ground or something.

NB:  [Pointing to another painting]  How did you get into this series?

AB:  I’m using this stuff called Liquid Masking Fluid, which is basically like a liquid tape where you put it down, and then you let it dry and then you do another layer, and then you remove it.  So it’s like painting the painting from the back forward.  It’s really trippy.  It’s kind of like printmaking.  I’ve been thinking about lottery scratch tickets.  Like the idea of scratching off something–

NB:  Your painting is like a math problem.  That’s awesome.

AB:  Yeah.  It’s kind of like this surprise element thing where I’m only responding to the layer directly behind, and I don’t remember or know exactly color this layer was.  It’s about immediate response and unveiling– to remember what you had originally.  This whole painting was all yellow, originally.

NB: You work a lot in layers.

AB:  I really like layers.  I think a lot about the light coming from the back of the painting forward, instead of adding light to the painting.  So a lot of work is keeping the light that you start with when you paint the painting white– to reference that and have that shine through, instead of an additive process.  My older work has a lot more layering.

NB:  Do you feel like you’re referencing more African influences now that you’ve had time away?

AB:  Probably.  I think that will always stay with me.  I went there during undergrad, and after grad school.  And I think those travels just reinforced a use of color and direct, boldness and stuff.  I think that will stay with me my whole life.  But at the same time, I’m still really referencing street, urban environments, and how color pops within that landscape– the same way color pops on a dusty street in Ghana.  It’s the same relationship to color I think.

NB:  With your most recent mural, I was thinking about that difference in context.  Just seeing the signs for “CAR WASH” and all these garish ads.

AB:  Yeah totally.  And when I designed that I was thinking of the car wash.  Under that sign are these little waves that happen.  I wanted to incorporate that in the design.  I love that element of seeing a hand-marked image at that scale in the landscape.  The Youtube ads in the train, it’s so corporate and printed perfectly and designed so cleanly, you know–masked off and installed you know.  And so with that mural I was really interested in seeing my brush stroke and how it dried.  The evidence of the hand is so important, in that piece especially.  It’s exciting to see that in people’s lives I guess.  Someone made this.  Even though it was printed on vinyl, it doesn’t matter.  It still shows that it was created. 

NB:  Watching Style Wars last night I was thinking, why are we trying to get rid of that?  The trains especially.  Why are we trying to get rid of the guys who are dancing in the subways?

AB:  I know.  It’s such an energy.  When I lived in Ghana, all the painting there, it’s sign painting, you know?  Everything is painted by hand.  Even commercial images, things that advertise.

NB:  I think you said something like, “It’s weird for a woman to be painting murals and that it’s a commercial thing.”

AB:  Yeah it’s definitely male-dominated.  I had never seen a woman sign-painter.  And when I painted there it was definitely a spectacle.  Not just being white, but also being a woman for sure.  And not having a commercial tie to the image was really different to see for the locals.  All the sign-painters who I worked with would sign their paintings and had a studio, but the sign was still for someone’s hair salon or whatever it was advertising.  But at the same time they were beautiful and unique and hand-painted, interesting images, bright.  They were refreshing to see.

NB:  What’s next for you?

AB:  I’m trying to go to Capetown.  I want to do a mural there.  I’m trying to do a sail on a sailboat, like have an image be the sail.  I’m trying to research how to get it fabricated, if I’m gonna be painting it, or if a factory’s going to be printing it, or if it’s going to be like and applique.  I want it to be functional, the way the cement trucks are in the landscape moving around.  I don’t want it to fall apart.

NB:  What’s the attraction to all the different surfaces?  It seems like the variety is fun.

AB:  I just like the idea that an image can expand beyond what’s traditional.  It can live anywhere.  I like site specific work.

NB:  You’re gonna go “all-world.”  [Laughs]  “All-ocean.”

AB:  Yeah, I mean, we can think about image-making or where work should live differently.  Like it doesn’t just have to be a mural on a wall, which I think is awesome, but there’s just so many more opportunities for where images could live, or move, or travel to, that don’t have to be a logo.  I went sailing at the end of this summer, and the pace of a sailboat in the water is so soothing.  It’d be interesting to experience an image on top of that, at that pace.  When you’re experiencing a mural or something in the landscape, you’re in control of the movement.

NB:  The perspective.

AB:  Yeah, the perspective, the shift.  But when something else outside of your force, especially when it’s powered by nature, at that speed– it’s like taking in… I don’t know.

NB:  That’s why that opening of Style Wars is so good.  The Wagner and the train in darkness, and it’s so mysterious, and then the train is moving across the light, and you’re just like, “Wait a second.  This is awesome!”

AB:  It’s insane.

NB:  And then the music switches to The Sugarhill Gang, and the graffiti moving on the train comes closer.  And it changes the way–

AB:  You interact with that everyday thing.  It’s like this caterpillar moving through the city.  That’s amazing.  That movie, man, totally opened up my eyes.  I was like, “Fuck.  Game on.”

NB:  When did you watch it?

AB:  Before the cement truck project.  I mean, maybe a few months before.  And then I’d just always bike by United Transit Mix.  I had been creating a list of cement truck suppliers for a while, and then–

NB:  So this was a thing before you met the guys at United.  You were like, “I’m gonna paint a cement truck for sure.  It’s not gonna be like a motorcycle.”

AB:  Yeah it was more like a dream.  But it was definitely always a cement truck.  Like this would be awesome.  But, I don’t know, maybe this is stupid.  You know, I was questioning it.

NB:  That’s how all the best ideas develop.

AB:  Yeah it’s dangerous and scary.  But I remember I was in Midtown and I asked this one guy who was just the driver.  I was like, “Do you think I could paint your truck?”  And he was just kind of, like, confused.  He gave me a card of the company, and I emailed them and never heard anything.  And then I realized this is the type of thing that you just need to walk in in-person and talk to someone.  So I just did it.  Danny and Tony [of United Transit Mix] are cool.  There’s so much graffiti in that neighborhood, the idea wasn’t too out there for them I don’t think.

NB:  Do you feel like that’s becoming a part of your artistic process?  Wooing a collaborator?  That process of getting a cement truck owner or a sailboat skipper to let you do your thing?

AB:  Yeah.  I like going into other subcultures that aren’t totally art-focused and aren’t around art all the time, and just trying to interest them in that experience too.  I like that that image is on the street on Fresh Pond, and everyone’s walking by and seeing it.  You know, you’re not going into a gallery.  It’s there, it’s part of the community.  And I think art in Africa, or at least in Ghana– when I lived there, art was so incorporated in everyday life.  The dresses, the textiles, the beads, the way things are displayed, hand-painted signs, it was just part of culture.  There was no divide of, like, you go to art to see it in this gallery, or it’s corporate, and that’s it.  So I like trying to continue that into my world, too.

NB:  I like doing the same thing too.  Getting interesting people that aren’t performers into a music video and combining them with other things, like dancers.  That layer of ubiquity becomes the unexpected.  You’d expect to see, like, skaters in a music video, but you wouldn’t expect to see, I don’t know, construction workers.

AB:  Yeah, it’s like incorporating everyday life or that experience.  There’s something really real about that Sinkane video.  All the people who are in it, and the scene, and everything.  It’s really nice to see.

NB:  Thanks.  What else is next?

AB:  I think it’s just returning back to my studio and recharging, and focusing on the next bigger public work.  I don’t know.  I love working in my studio, too.  It’s a good balance.  I don’t just want to make art on the street.  There’s something intimate that happens in my studio with a different pace.  I get to decide when the work is ready and present it.  You’re pretty vulnerable when you’re making images outside and then releasing it.  I think that takes a lot physically and emotionally.  It’s exciting, it’s awesome.  I love that the cement trucks are this thing on Instagram that people are constantly tagging.  It’s a cool connection to have with friends in the city.  You have friends all over New York, and you barely see them.  But this thing is still going around.  It’s like this friend or something. 

NB:  Yeah my buddy Dave– he’s friends with Morgan, too and he tagged the truck recently. Like “Spotted!”  You catch it.

AB:  Yeah it’s like this game.  It’s like, cool, and people know about it.  It’s become this thing.  It’s just like, fun.  Whenever I’m in the city and I see one of the United guys, I’m always waving and they know me.  It’s a cool connection.  [Laughs]  It makes the world a little smaller I guess.