Artist Sebastiaan Bremer. He begins with photos and other printed imagery and builds on that base with ink and paint.


By Alyssa Coppelman

When looking at Brooklyn-based artist Sebastiaan Bremer’s detailed artwork, it’s clear there’s more going on than what you see at first glance. Bremer started out as a painter, but 15 years ago he began drawing directly onto photographic prints to create a different kind of imagery. The result feels as though he’s drawing the molecules and ghosts of history that crowd around us—and the collective unconscious itself.

Bremer mostly uses his own photographs, taken with his iPhone and film cameras: a Yashica, Leica, and a “dear ol’ Rolleiflex, the same one my Uncle Paul Kraaijvanger used for his imagery that I ended up using, too.” Bremer also incorporates old family photos, historical imagery, and combinations of those. Sometimes he re-creates and photographs a moment he experienced but wasn’t able to capture.

With a photo print as his canvas, Bremer adds paint and ink and scratches into the mixture with varying degrees of intricacy. Sometimes he creates a drawing by scratching directly onto black photo paper.

Intrinsic to Bremer’s work is what he calls “the fuzz of every medium.” Analog and digital have specific qualities, and “they can coexist happily at the same time.” He sometimes incorporates artwork he finds online by photographing it on his computer screen. This, he says, adds an extra layer of digital noise. It also infuses the archival imagery with the present moment and the artist’s hand, and helps transform the vernacular into new work completely his own.

For example, the Nudes and Revolutions series contains a photo Bremer took of a 19th-century photo by George Hendrik Breitner from the Rijksmuseum’s online collection. He had planned to use the original negatives;  when that proved impossible, he instead used his iPhone to photograph the original prints through Mylar sleeves in the Rijksmuseum’s Prentenkabinet. The room's overhead lights and  natural light from the windows, along with an orange glow from his shirt, are all visible in the final artwork below. He retained the digital artifacts for visual interest and as part of the story of his image-making process.

Other times, as with his series Ouroboros, he uses Adobe Photoshop to create what he describes as a “layer cake of history.” For this series, he mixed images by Bill Brandt, older Dutch paintings, and his own photos. He placed image on top of image in Photoshop layers until he’d achieve abstracted images, then printed the composites and began the analog part of his process. One of the series is to the left.


While some images are heavily worked, others look quite simple, but it’s a false simplicity that belies their depth. His recent series of flowers images is one example.

When he moved to the United States from Holland in the early 1990s, he brought a Dutch book of photographic plates of flowers. He’d been meaning to use the plates in his work, but it wasn’t until he needed new art for an upcoming show in the Netherlands that he finally acted on the thought.

He feared that it could be a mistake to make images of flowers for a show in Holland, “like bringing water to the sea,” but then he considered the historical and current relevance underlying the subject matter. The flower book was printed in 1948 on "Victory paper," which had to be imported from abroad due to scarcity. The book had originally been scheduled to publish upon the country's liberation; it was put on hold because of the "Hungerwinter" (the winter of 1944-1945) when there was no electricity and Dutch people were more likely to eat tulip bulbs than to plant them. Furthermore, the tulips that have long symbolized Holland were originally wild flowers in Central Asia, cultivated by the Turks 1,000 years ago. To bring matters back to the present, the movement of people from that part of the world to the Netherlands and the rest of Europe is a hot-button issue today.

One of a series of flower prints by Sebastiaan Bremer
One of a series of flower prints by Sebastiaan Bremer
One of a series of flower prints by Sebastiaan Bremer

As Gregory Volk aptly states in the introduction of Bremer’s book, To Joy, Bremer’s works “transcend biographical or autobiographical concerns to become part of a broader human drama.”

Bremer’s work is on view through May 7 at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts. Bremer is represented by Edwynn Houk Gallery; Hales Gallery; Ron Mandos; and Galeria Leme. All images are copyrighted by the artist.

April 26, 2016