166 Scott Berels

Born Royal Oak, MI, 1983 / BFA Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit

Encountering Scott Berels’ work feels like a meditation on the nature of nature, a practice whose foremost concern is observation, drawing inspiration from the physical world to contemplate the phenomenon of being. Approaching 40, the painter and sculptor has already devoted half of his life to visual art, creating for his own enjoyment while also undertaking commissions for large-scale public sculptures. In each stage of his career, he has skillfully investigated materiality and the rituals of creation. But Berels doesn’t simply pause to marvel when considering nature’s ontology, he also probes its linguistic consistency to understand the messages it conveys. Through repetition and tessellations, patterns and geometric forms, the artist engages what he calls “an ancestral language,” the grammar of the ineffable that speaks through stone formations, a grove of trees, or “the brush of a plant’s frond over dry soil.”

Early sculptures reflect a playful banter with his surroundings, like a child imitating a parent’s speech and gestures. Son of a Bitch (2009), apotheosizing the ignoble cockroach that decomposes and renews organic matter, is quickly followed by his enigmatic Sacred Migration series (2010-2011), crafted with zip ties and porcelain, that resemble clusters of coconuts nestled high on a palm, its inflorescence protected until the fruit ripens and falls. Ironically, Berels was confronted with the fragility of these assemblages when one was accidentally broken during display. This realization, coupled with a desire to undertake new techniques, compelled a transition of his practice into metalwork. The pivot also coincided with his foray into rock climbing ten years ago, a passion that allows him to relish time outdoors, where his examination of both natural beauty and the devastation of human activity on our delicate environment has come to bear on his artistic output. In this shift, his metalwork practice began to mirror nature’s adaptive strategies for survival, healing, and renewal, a process that begins with metamorphosis, harnessing the same manipulation of heat required to melt rock, form mountains, and forge metals together.

It’s no surprise, then, that Berels’ sculptures can be found displayed in parks where visitors are invited to explore the outdoors. Installed in the Franconia Sculpture Park, May the Wind Always Be in the Face (2014) resembles an intricate ship hull hardened by circumstances of the sea, while the massive sundial Gnomon (2017), designed by Russell Thayers, solemnly imposes in the Rochester Municipal Park, a reminder of the enduring ritual of time established by the Sun. West Bloomfield’s towering Gateway Monument (2019), which Berels co-designed with landscape architect Tad Krear, enshrines the fleeting lyricism of tall grasses in corrosion resistant steel. Like Carmen Almon’s timeless plants or Damien Hirst’s shark preserved in formaldehyde, Berels’ work highlights nature’s paradoxical capacity to mobilize humans to memorialize our ephemeral world and, at the same time, to ask if our facsimiles of nature will be all that remains in our planet’s future. 

Berels’ concerns for the environment converged with a sense of urgency in his 2019 exhibition “Degradation Reservation,” at Playground Detroit. His attempt to “address consumerism and human consumption of natural resources,” the show featured a series of paintings (such as Laser Blast) that combine concepts of creation and destruction, with black shadows emitting from perfect gold lines and monoliths, taut remnants of a cosmic explosion in formless space. Eclipse Vision forebodes, drawing the viewer into an ominous penumbra, the gaze of an orb whose life-generating light might be permanently obscured. Quasar Contained, exhibited at Whitdel Arts in 2018, carries the moniker of the radiant core of galaxies. Distilled to geometric precision, the piece is suspended like a taxidermied prize, perhaps the result of overzealous hunting in the far reaches of the universe. 

If a painter is a choreographer of space, as artist Barnett Newmann remarked, then Berels is a choreographer of space-time, emphasizing our changing relationship to the environment – its benevolence and fertility tempered by fury and scarcity. Berels takes his launching point where Newmann ends, as he steps beyond the austerity of existential awareness to recognize life’s dynamism and interconnectedness.

Accordingly, with the birth of his first child, Berels has rediscovered play and “making for the sake of making,” he says, creating experimental music and welding palm-sized miniatures such as Stellar Collision (2023) that, like newly sprouted seedlings, reflect nature’s resilience and the possibilities born of hope. He has also begun community building with other artists by providing welding demonstrations and undertaking more opportunities to instruct. With wisdom gained from studying nature’s ancestral language and regenerative processes, Berels is assuming a more active role in nurturing the arts community to plant the seeds for sustainable creativity far into the future.

Precious Johnson-Arabitg. May 2023

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