Stefan Berg: Counterpoint at United Contemporary

“I believe all painting is about looking” says Stefan Berg. His show at United Contemporary finds poetry in the ordinary and discovers vivid visual experiences in commonplace subjects. At first glance, his paintings and linocuts may appear to be straight-forward depictions of gardens, architecture and interiors. But slow down. Give them time, and they’ll reveal their complexity.  

Installation view of Stefan Berg, Counterpoint at United Contemporary

In Old Folks, Berg creates a dramatic image from a prosaic subject. The painting depicts a glassed-in staircase of a nondescript institutional building. It’s the kind of generic architecture to which we’ve grown inured and inattentive. If anything, Berg says of this image, it makes most people think of their high school.

Old Folks, 2020, oil on canvas, 36” x 48”

The painting presents this structure as something monumental. The composition is framed by strong vertical elements at the edges. Two bright blue bands in the curtain wall span the middle. The slight perspective puts everything slightly off kilter. Up close, the centre of the image becomes an abstract arrangement of rectangles and the picture seems to flatten itself on the surface. What initially appeared as unmodulated areas of colour reveal themselves to be subtly textured. There are lightly rendered intimations of other windows. Are they reflections? Or are we seeing through to buildings behind? Stepping back again, the softly scumbled shadows and surfaces create depth as we look through the two layers of glass surfaces. Berg says he “wanted to attempt atmospheric perspective in a short depth of field.” The painting helps us see this ordinary place with new eyes. Berg shares his discovery of complex interplay of light and reflection from a place we might otherwise walk by and never notice.   

In Bay Street we continue to follow the visual discoveries of the artist. The vantage point is the south facing view from the top of the Manulife Centre at Bloor and Bay Streets with the lake in the far distance. The horizon line is near the top of the painting, so the visual focus is on the local buildings and street below.   

Bay Street, 2019, oil on canvas, 36” x 60”

It’s through the variance in detail that we follow Berg’s exploration of the view. Remote buildings recede as simple rectangles in atmospheric haze. A few neighbouring structures have much more detail. Windows and other features are clearly and carefully rendered. Berg feels that the disparate degree of detail and finish leads to “a drifting sense of focus” allowing us to see the aspects of the scene that interest him.

Bay Street (Detail), 2019, oil on canvas, 36” x 60”

Berg has alternated between drawing and painting throughout the creation of the painting. In many places, he’s left graphite lines visible as he’s constructed geometries and perspective. Not only does this give us a ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse of the artist at work, but it also helps us see how we re-construct the image as we look at it; how we participate in the creation of the illusion. We can see flat lines and colours on canvas as well as buildings modeled in light.

The show also includes a smaller Bay Street image, a linocut which is looser and more impressionistic. The view is similar but not identical to the one in the larger painting. There is a faint hint of a different cityscape behind the main image which gives the piece a dynamic, shifting quality. In fact, the print is built up from four layers of ink of various darkness which results in a shimmering, atmospheric depth. For Berg, painting and printmaking are complementary activities. He says “Printmaking has influenced the way I construct paintings in the studio when I am not working on-site, whereas observational painting has consistently provided content for my printmaking.”

Bay Street, linocut, 2020, 7” x 5.5”. Edition of 3

In Sunday Morning Berg focuses our attention on interior architecture. Once again, the subject itself is unassuming: a figure descending a staircase, and yet the result is engaging in several ways. First, there’s a dynamic tension between flatness and depth. The reddish ceiling and slate coloured wall on the right pull and flatten the composition up to the surface while the staircase and room behind pull back and create depth. Next, Berg explores the complexity of light in this space. Illumination from the window above creates an intricate interplay of shadows and reflections, particularly on the railing wall. And finally, the flower-patterned carpet stands in sharp contrast to the surrounding surfaces and adds an aura of domestic geniality.

Sunday Morning, 2020, oil on canvas, 36” x 36”

The work of Stefan Berg illustrates that artists do not need dramatic subjects to make compelling art. His images focus our attention on what was already there, all around us, but we had not noticed. Berg finds his images by looking carefully at the world. Colours, shapes, shifting light, and subtle reflections are his subjects. His work shares these visual discoveries with the rest of us.

Mikael Sandblom

Images are courtesy of United Contemporary

*Exhibition information: October 28 – November 28, 2020, United Contemporary Gallery, 1444 Dupont Street, Unit 22, Toronto. The gallery is currently closed because of COVID 19. Photo documentation of the current exhibition is available on their website. All inquiries about available artwork may be addressed to or Circumstances permitting, private appointments may be arranged.

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