If, as Tolstoy promised, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, something they may all share nonetheless is envy for the family in Sebastiaan Bremer’s To Joy, recently published by Lower East Side Printshop following Bremer’s residency there. The Dutch artist works mainly with his own family’s snapshots, drawing or painting on them, then enlarging and rephotographing them. The four he chose to use for these archival inkjet prints are from an idyllic-looking 1972 family vacation in the Alps. To the original images he has added hand-painted ink and dye spots of various sizes, some of which he has then cut out and replaced with small mirrors or paper cutouts. He recently described how he intentionally heightened the handmade aspect of some spots and designed others to “disappear into the emulsion and background.” As with his work generally, there is a wonderful play between surface and image, the embellishment sometimes hovering atop the material and elsewhere entering into the image, becoming content.
In the meadow in Nature’s Bosom, Bremer’s dots become blurred wildflowers, while in the upper half of the image, which recedes into mountainous distance, the density of dots thins so that they seem to be water spots on the surface. Universal Time Machine is composed of similar lower and upper registers of wildflowers and mountains, but the technicolor spots have been launched dramatically into the space above like hot air balloons, which on first glance seem like they might be in the original photograph. Speaking about the play between obvious embellishment and illusion, Bremer says he likes “that point between the two, where you see how it’s made but the magic still works.” It’s that space into which the viewer is pulled and, he hopes, able to engage with the image more, projecting one’s own associations. The small added mirrors are an added invitation.
Bremer’s spots are unmistakably buoyant—sometimes rising, sometimes static, but never heavy or ominous. They are indeed joyous. The series title—and each print’s subtitle—is from Friedrich Schiller’s 1785 Ode to Joy (famously, the lyrics for the finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony). The poem is crammed full of unbridled exuberance, urging the reader to take part—“be embraced millions, this kiss for the whole world”—just one gleeful beckoning. Bremer describes the revelation of finding the negatives for To Joy, never developed and in perfect condition. They presented an untarnished “slice of life,” a golden moment that seemed possibly all the more so because he hadn’t been there (a young baby, he was left at home for this family vacation). Bremer wanted to expand on, to “amplify,” the moment in the photographs and, with Beethoven’s jubilant Ninth Symphony turned up loud, he found himself making these marks, “beautiful sparks of the Gods” (a reference to Schiller’s original poem). Of course Bremer recognizes that the 1972 world in which these photos were set, and the family life at their center, were not so utterly blissful. As he put it; “plenty problems in the world then. But not here on the top.”