Will Berry was a late bloomer. His training as an architect and student of English letters, along with time spent as part of the New York underground scene in the '80s, accounts for his delay in picking up a brush. When he did, his work as a painter had a built-up quality like sculpture, making it seem more like an object than a traditional painted representation — much less a narrative one.
Berry's motifs come from everyday experiences with a little free association thrown in, but he acknowledges that those inspirations are in his paintings to varying degrees. Doodles made on napkins during his morning coffee are printed and enlarged, forming the first surface upon which the multiple layers of painting, erasure and application of pigment are placed.
"In many instances," he says from his adopted home in Mexico City, "a carbon drawing is buried in the layers of a panel to be revealed as light shifts across the finished painting's surface — or placed on top to provide a particular structured space."
As a daily observer, Berry absorbs the city, experiencing and researching its layers of architecture and history, taking in how these elements interact with green spaces and the daily cultural expressions of its people.
Part of what motivates him and nurtures his desire to understand his surroundings is his heritage as a mestizo, a term used in Spanish-speaking Latin America to describe a person of combined European and Native American descent. In the case of Berry's work, it's more about mestizaje, a broader term denoting the cultural mixing spurred by colonialism and the era of exploration that first circulated people, objects and ideas around the planet.
At his new show at Page Bond Gallery, "I Saw the Sun," Berry's paintings using luminous gold leaf continue an exploration of light that recalls ancient worship of the sun. Last year he began to work with 22- and 24-carat gold leaf on solid cedar panels, braced on the sides and back, recalling medieval and Renaissance icons.
"Gold has been unique for every culture which has found it, worked it and mined for it," he says. "And for each, I suspect it is the unbelievable ability of this metal, even in the smallest amounts, to reflect any available light, and like the sun, appear to be the source of that light."
The shimmering images belie a complex technique in which spirituality is invoked, not only by the materials and process but also by the source material: ancient abstract geometries, Renaissance and Baroque motifs, including Mexican vice-regal traditions. A painter with technical rigor, Berry's work is in the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' collection, and five large pieces are included in the newly opened Jumex Museum in Mexico City.
The title of the show comes from a line in Emily Dickinson's poem, "I Never Told the Buried Gold":
I never told the buried gold
Upon the hill that lies,
I saw the sun, his plunder done,
Crouch low to guard his prize.
Loaded with cross-cultural significance — mythological, religious and socio-political — gold has had a symbolic allure across history and geography, one that resonates with Berry and shows up in his tactile paintings.
"That image for me of gold and sun seems to fit," he says. "The ancient Egyptians, the Aztecs and those who came before them, the creators of the giant pyramids to the sun and the moon, outside Mexico City at Teotihuacan, all worshipped the sun." S
"I Saw the Sun" runs through Feb. 25 at Page Bond Gallery, 1625 W. Main St. For information, call 359-3633 or go to pagebondgallery.com. An artist's reception is Feb. 21, 6-8 p.m.