The Artist's Conviction Marked Out in Oil

TOM BERDING'S paintings are founded on a simple optimism, a conviction that despite all that has happened and will happen, life is still worth it. It's a choice, and it shows. Rather than making paintings that dress life up, make it more ideal in some way and thus more tolerable, Berding chooses to look into the face of things and paint what he sees, if only a little at a time. He takes what he can to an inside room and contemplates it. His handling of the medium is a testimony to his earnestness; a thou sand flecks of paint underscore his commitment.

The process appears essentially emotional and intuitive. The physical, gestural, and direct working of the surface, along with the crusty buildup and fusion of the paint, creates a wall of abstraction - marks, color, and texture. The final effect, however, is very much one of illusion.

Berding invents an arranged interior space that invites viewers to make a shared contemplation. We are not given details, or information per se, but apparitions - props, shapes, volumes, masses, and surfaces with light and air. We are grounded with a floor, enclosed by walls, and with a sense of gravity, left to wander.

What I am made aware of in these paintings starts with the surface. Every mark, every brush stroke or bit of paint covers another mark, a mark that gets at least partially replaced but not displaced.

Each mark remains present, if only to shoulder another mark, and so on. The effect is not only one of regeneration and continuity but also of history and decay. While many painters borrow this look to add depth and weight to their work, with Berding it is the most natural product of his sensibility, his contemplation, his attitude. In the end, it is the only way he knows how to balance what he believes with what he needs to understand.

This is human stuff. It is made of those complexities and contradictions that always seem to trip us up, and it has them teetering on top of each other, but still somehow in balance. All of this so we can function, dream, and even dance. There is something so reasonable about it, so level-headed. And then it also hints at alchemy, at magic, at molding life out of a piece of clay, or even creating it in a laboratory. Everything in these paintings seems to have a light source of its own, even an internal o ne. The complicated surfaces evolve simple images, and then they suggest mysteries that turn as they fold and unfold. It all adds up to a wonderful and energizing affirmation, a hand on the torch that makes painting matter.

Berding lives in Bloomington, Ind., with his wife, Alisa, who is also a painter. He teaches painting at the university there. Making a painting doesn't amount to much in this world. It's an odd sort of conviction, kind of a philosophical pursuit with colors. Teaching people to paint is like trying to teach dreaming. It's about a side of life so intangible we can only guess, and then believe. In the end, however, painting realizes that place so that we can almost touch it. Tom Berding makes paintings that

he can live with, that we can live with - good- natured metaphysical inquiry on canvas.

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