When Kevin Berlin paints a portrait, the work evolves beyond an artistic depiction of a person. Berlin's paintings illustrate his subjects' personal wishes and secret desires, encouraging those who view his work to similarly unleash all of the ideas, wants, and needs that they keep hidden.
"If you give anyone a chance, they have a story to tell," says Berlin, who splits his time between Southampton, New York, and Florence, Italy. "The stories taking place in my paintings are the ideas of the person who posed. My paintings answer the question: What would you never do but in secret you would like to try? These are things you wouldn't tell your mother, but you may tell the person who cuts your hair, a stranger on a train, or me."
A retrospective exhibition chronicling the evolution of Berlin's global, 45-year career as an artist is on view now at South Beach's Naomi Wilzig Erotic Art Museum (WEAM). "Kevin Berlin: 45 Years of Nudes" explores the artist's lifelong fascination with the human form and his penchant for using nude portraiture as a vehicle for expression and freedom.
Several works on display were painted during Berlin's two-decade-long collaboration with classical ballet dancers in companies like Kyiv's National Opera and Ballet and Saint Petersburg's Kirov Ballet. Viewers may be drawn to the large-scale, oil-on-canvas painting Sponge Bob Ballerina, in which it's suggested a ballerina clad in only a tutu and a tiara will receive a spank from the beloved Nickelodeon animated character SpongeBob SquarePants.
"I asked the dancers, 'What did your mother tell you not to do? They'd say, 'Don't drink; don't smoke,' or 'If you're having erotic daydreams about SpongeBob SquarePants, keep them to yourself,'" Berlin recalls. "We all have something we have to work with, something we're afraid of, something that overwhelms us."
"45 Years of Nudes" also includes the public premiere of a cast bronze portrait of actress Kim Basinger leafed in 23-karat gold done by Berlin during his time in Los Angeles and a series of paintings Berlin recovered after French police foiled their attempted theft.
Before he built a globetrotting career with paintbrushes and canvases in tow, Berlin honed his passion for visual art — and rendering the human body, specifically — as a child growing up in suburban Maryland. At the tender age of 12, Berlin enrolled in a college-level figure painting class at Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran School of the Arts & Design. When he was 16, his grandma Rose bought him a subscription to Playboy, and a faithful Berlin created pencil sketches of each of the Playmates in every issue for a year. Art became a serious consideration for Berlin in his later teens when he presented his work at the Kennedy Center as a United States Presidential Scholar, a designation from then-president Ronald Reagan.
Berlin says his earliest and most recent work benefited from a childhood focused on pairing art and anatomy and years spent deciding between a career in medicine or art.
"As a child, I spent my free time learning all of the bones and muscles of the human body. I always thought I would become a doctor," he says. "As it turns out, that was excellent early training if someday you're going to become a painter and sculptor."
Berlin studied at Yale University and the Slade School of Fine Arts in London. Following the tradition of Renaissance painters, Berlin says he aims to spin tales through his brush strokes.
"As you enter '45 Years of Nudes,' the first painting you see is a copy of Mona Lisa I did in the first grade," he says. "My paintings are narrative paintings. Like in the Renaissance period, when the churches commissioned artists like Raphael, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo to paint their chapels, the artists, in trying to communicate with people who couldn't read, found a way to tell stories through their art."
Helmut Schuster, director of the WEAM, says visitors to "45 Years of Nudes" may be struck by Berlin's gift for "transferring emotions and thoughts directly to the canvas."
For Berlin, partnering with the WEAM in creating "45 Years of Nudes" — a retrospective of his artistic output that also includes video highlights from his career in performance art — has been a rewarding experience that confirms the tenability of the tenet driving his work: We are all more alike than we think.
"Helmut had great insight in choosing my specific works to tell a story. It took about two years to put the show together," Berlin says. "Helmut told me, 'You're a storyteller. I want you to tell the story.' I don't believe the artist should tell you what is right or wrong or good or bad. As soon as you do that, people stop listening. Instead, I use paintings and sculptures to explore important social issues."
"There's no real beginning to the conversations and issues in my work. You, the viewer, can join the conversation at any point. Oftentimes, I paint poetic moments, but most are about temptation, desire, or what people want, whether that's a snack or a friend. There's something we all have in common that you discover as you travel. We all want to live in a beautiful place, have friends, have love, be felt attractive to other people, and do something that's part of the future."
Presenting his work at the WEAM has proved a new source of inspiration for Berlin, and he says his latest batch of works in progress may capture a bit of the magic that makes Miami the one-of-a-kind location it is.
"I've been coming to Miami since I was 18 — what a great place to start a conversation. Where else can you drink a real Cuban cortadito, get on a yacht, go to Flamingo Gardens, and eat a coconut that just fell off a tree?" Berlin says. "I'm already working on ideas for paintings about Miami nightlife and the unique culture here."
"Kevin Berlin: 45 Years of Nudes." On view through May 29 at Wilzig Erotic Art Museum, 1205 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; weammuseum.com. Tickets cost $30.