What is in an identity? How does one prevail? How does one negotiate their outward appearance and the gnarling contradictory feelings that come along with being. In his role as spectator, sympathizer, provocateur Belgian born painter Serge Strosberg takes on the heady task of juxtaposing darkness, lightness, glee, gluttony, vanity, vulnerability, self adulation, and self dislocation. Perhaps as a pertinent parable to today’s times SCV recently took umbrage with Mr. Strosberg and dared to ask him the questions that he dares to ask us.
SCV; In all your work there is the ever present feeling that the subject is trying to negotiate their outside world and the one inside their head. Why is that a consistent theme of your work?
Serge Strosberg; Because people are complex, they never seem to be so often who they appear to be to us on the outside. I think what often goes on is in order to define who people think they are, they so often take on the role that they think other people expect them to be. So for me a tall, statuesque beauty may present that image, but once I start painting them, I so often find the antithesis.
SCV; Why is that?
Serge Strosberg; On a certain level people are paralyzed by the culture at large. They feel obliged to perform to expectations, to copy role models we come across in the movies, the magazines, the tabloids. So what happens a lot of people end up acting, behaving in a way that’s organically counter intuitive to their constitution. But because they are told they look like some sort of icon they feel obliged to take on these roles.
SCV; In some of the press you have received in Europe you go for the concept of the socialite. Why is that?
Serge Strosberg; It’s very interesting you mention that. I only just moved to New York this past March, and I truly have to say that until I came here I had never heard of the word socialite or rather quite understood it’s veracity in affecting human behavior. It was very interesting for me, my first publicist here in NYC would always claim how proud they were to be a socialite, and this intrigued me as so far it alluded to the concept of ‘role model.’
As I have spent more time here in NYC I have come to understand that in so many ways it is vital if one is to survive here that one is obliged to give off a particular brand of posturing. Everyone here is hyper cool, on the go, just about to become a huge hit, parties with the right people, is seen at the right places, is seen holding the right pose.
SCV; Is it true this has affected the way you portray yourself to society?
Serge Strosberg; I would be lying if I said other wise. But I think working through my work serves to act as a kind of catharsis. By revealing my subjects vulnerability I’m also reckoning with my own.
SCV; What inspired you to set up shop here in NYC?
Serge Strosberg; I like to regard myself as a very cosmopolitan person. And I think as much as I adore Paris, where I have been based amongst other European cities, Brussels, London, I think that Europe lacks the stimulation that ultimately I am looking for, the unnerving that I want to reflect in my subjects. Europe for me has become a very pretty museum, where one still lives in past glories and prized artifacts. I think one is free to be who they choose to be here in NYC, or at least more free in other staid cultures. You want to walk around in pajamas, scream at the top of your lungs. That’s okay, nobody seems to mind here, if anything it’s encouraged.
I also like the density here. I can look out my window here on Broadway and see a whole world passing underneath my fire escape.
SCV; One of your favorite themes is the ‘Dorian Gray syndrome.’ Please explain.
Serge Strosberg; In Oscar Wilde’s novel of the same name, the protagonist is consumed with his apparent beauty, and the way he looks to other people, but as time goes on, the reader begins to realize that the protagonist is anything but beautiful, if anything he has become very ugly, especially to himself. This duplicity of being interests me very much, the double life we so often play for ourselves and the outside world and how over time that tears at one’s soul.
SCV; How does this translate in your work?
Serge Strosberg; Initially when I set up my subject to pose I am very much drawn to their physique, their apparent beauty, but as time and sessions go on I find the subject beginning to reveal over time gives way to his insecurities, or his feminine tendencies, despite his very masculine physical tendencies.
It really amazes me, because you would think people who look like this don’t ever get to feel this way, but in a way they probably feel more so than other people. It is this apparent contradiction that very much interests me.
SCV; On what level does this feed on the artist’s own self perception?
Serge Strosberg; I think when people meet me they think I am just this very nice looking boy who is very well behaved, but nothing could be further from the truth.
SCV; Could you be so kind to disclose to our readers how so?
Serge Strosberg; I think one has to play close attention to the work.
SCV; Chic….. Who are some of your influences?
Serge Strosberg; All the great soul searchers. Soutine, Lucien Freud, Balthaus, Rembrandt. I also like the Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele, the distorted faces, I love them very much, and Rembrandt going for the kill, exposing the psychology of being.
SCV; Would you then regard yourself as an expressionist?
Serge Strosberg; A realistic expressionist. Ultimately I am very much interested in the subject, not the surrounding decor, but their soul, not what they necessarily appear to be to us.
SCV; Tell me about your outfit. It looks like a butcher’s.
Serge Strosberg; It’s funny, it’s an old shirt worn by surgeons way back. But yes, you are correct, I am a kind of butcher, a surgeon, tearing away, looking for the heart.
SCV; Can one repair the heart?
Serge Strosberg; I am often surprised by the way my subjects react to my painting of them. It’s kind of a relief for them, to be exposed in some way, and I think this has a lot to say how people who see my work relate to it as well.
SCV; Can you tell us about some of your upcoming shows?
Serge Strosberg; In December I’m participating in a very important group show, it’s a ten year retrospective showing at the ‘Felix Nussbaum ‘ built by Daniel Liebeskindt (the architect slated to design the new world trade center) in Osnabruck, Germany.
They will be presenting the work of Lucien Freud, Mark Rothko, Rebecca Horn, Richard Serra, and Larry Rivers. I will be exhibiting a piece called ‘Genealogy,’ seven self-portraits of my family tree, which is five hundred years old, a mixture of Dutch, Portuguese, Marrano Jewish heritage.
SCV; How has your heritage affected your work?
Serge Strosberg; Of course as a Jew, our faith forces us to question ones identity. Also as a Jew, I am interested in other minority groups, who might have experienced discrimination; gays, blacks, drag queens, foreigners.
SCV: Where else?
Serge Strosberg; Also in ‘Palm Beach 3 contemporary,’ Florida, as well at the ‘Ann Norton Sculpture Garden’ in Palm beach next March.
SCV; How has the public received your work?
Serge Strosberg; I’ve been quite humbled. This year I’ve had three museum shows, and over the last three years I have been able to sell a lot of my work.
SCV; How do you think now that you have just arrived here in NYC your work will be received?
Serge Strosberg; I think I am doing my best work here, and the inspiration is following, so I think it will be a very good transition.
SCV; Finally, what makes you a scallywag?
Serge Strosberg; Because I discreetly push the boundaries, reveal the subject to himself, his society, and by doing that, revealing your secrets I am a scallywag.