Tom Berenz – Milwaukee, Wisconsin

5th Birthday Cake

“5th Birthday Cake” 64×70″, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 2013

Briefly describe the work that you do.

I use the motif of depressive disasters to examine my life experiences through painting.

At what point in your life did you decide to become an artist?

In 2010, 10 years after my freshman year of college, 2 years after a Masters of Arts program, and another 2 years of teaching at the college level, I learned I needed to be an artist. It took 10 years of rigorous investigation and a lot of sacrifices to know that I was an artist and needed to dedicate my life to it. I had little exposure to culture and art growing up. From the age of 5 I knew I wanted to be an artist, but I told everyone I wanted to be a professional basketball player because, somehow, that seemed more socially accepted.

Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.

My childhood inspires me; I grew up on a lake in central Wisconsin surrounded by woods and I return to this lake as much as possible. I think about this place, the people in my life and past experiences often. Falling tree forts, broken windows, cutting off my brothers finger, going to the emergency room, a car accident, and getting lost in the woods are just a few moments that can be found at the heart of my paintings. Inspiration for my paintings comes from within and from the world around me. Every element in my paintings discuss personal, sociopolitical, environmental and ideological issues.


“Bloom” 48×48″, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 2013

What types of conceptual concerns are present in your work? How do those relate to the specific process(es) or media you use?

My paintings are about my relationship to the world around me; cerebral and physical, intellectual and visceral. I use the disaster motif as a metaphor to discuss personal, sociopolitical, environmental and ideological issues. Through the motif of disaster, I explore the existential self and examine personal narratives, with some being more literal and others more enigmatic. Notions of loss, place, memory, space and time are central as I reexamine personal experiences from my past and present. The imagery is in constant flux, but always returns to a pile. A pile is everything and it is nothing. It is a mound that once was and now isn’t; a mass of information, both physical and metaphysical, organized and chaotic. These works emphasize form over narrative. I inject painterly gestural forms with flat edited down shapes. This results in a striking dichotomy between the strong emotional subtext of the work and the stark rigidity of its execution.

The paintings are about an investigation of unlimited possibilities, applications, and styles within a painting. I am interested in expanding the vocabulary within each painting and within the group. The work is ultimately about two-dimensional space, the language of painting, and the way an aftermath site is transformed into a painting. I am interested in blurring the lines between realism and abstraction, life and death, beauty and horror, devastation and sublime. Everything we live with as Americans is delicately balanced – the cars (magic carpets/ death traps), houses (castles/ prisons), and wilderness (paradise/oblivion). I examine contradictions within the idiom of painting by responding to the outside world. By reestablishing a different logic within the painting itself, I investigate how a painting can sit in a place that can only happen in two-dimensional space. I explore the in-between space that is neither real nor artifice, still-life nor landscape, natural nor artificial, messy nor clean, flat nor deep, and dynamic nor static.


“Flight” 62×72″, acrylic and oil on canvas

We once heard Chuck Close say he did not believe in being inspired, rather in working hard everyday. What motivates you in your studio practice?

I know I have bad, average and good ideas. I make bad paintings (well, I think they are bad and only about 50% of the paintings that I make will ever leave the studio) after I take a long break. It seems that the more consistently I work, the better my ideas are and the better the paintings are. I need to be in the studio often; working, researching and thinking about my paintings to keep things fresh and moving forward. I try not to take long breaks and get into the studio as much as possible. The longer the break, the more the ideas build and that becomes problematic.

What artists living or non-living influence your work?

T.L Solien, Dana Schutz, Kristine Moran, Paul Wackers, Jose Lerma, Trudy Benson, Jonas Wood, Julie Mehretu, Mickalene Thomas, Kerry James Marshall, Lari Pittman, Lisa Sanditz

When you are not making art what types of activities and interests do you engage in? 

I enjoy road trips — long road trips. I am interested in the collapse of time, form and space while driving long distances. For about a year, I have been thinking about a series of paintings that are based on a road trip, which will probably be a body of work in a few years. Every summer my wife and I take a 2-3 week trip somewhere across the country. I love trout fishing and being out in nature, or just being outside. I am an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, and I am trying to be a great educator as well as a successful painter.


Tom Berenz was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin in 1981. He is a painter and Assistant Professor at University of Wisconsin-Parkside. His paintings have been exhibited nationally from San Francisco to New York City and featured in multiple publications; most notably, New American Paintings and Huffington Post. He is represented by Mirus Gallery in San Francisco, CA and Circuit 12 Contemporary in Dallas, TX. He works and lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.



All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission. 

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