Oil on canvas and images that range between expressions of reality, portraits, religious themes, and anthropomorphic figures. The art of Paul Neberra, a Portuguese artist based in Lisbon, is rooted in these images which evolve, expand, and weave together as they touch on strange connections between fantasy and a subtle, cynical sarcasm.
This interview by M. Baleni was originally published on Tattoo Life September/October 2019
Hi Paul, it hasn’t been easy trying to find information about you! Are you a discreet person?
That’s a really interesting question! Who can we define as a discreet person, considering today’s social media world, where people usually expose much of their private life? Yes, I am without doubt a very discreet person! I don’t like to expose my personal life on the internet. I prefer my art to be valued for what it is, and not be judged by what I do or who I am. I confess that it freaks me out when people talk with me in person about my paintings, or when someone introduces me as the painter. I can’t explain it well, but maybe it has to do with my personal relationship to art which is very intimate, it’s something that I’ve been doing since I was a little child, and has grown with me through the years.
Would you like to introduce yourself directly to our readers?
I think I’m in my late thirties, but when I’m troubled in my thoughts I feel much older, and when I travel through my memories and imagination I feel much younger. I live in Lisbon, Portugal but most of the time I really don’t know where I am; lately I’ve been experiencing this awkward feeling of solitude and I think I’m cultivating a weird view of the world that surrounds me, mainly because of the time I spend painting and traveling in my own mind, and besides the fact that society is becoming like a complete stranger to me. I haven’t always been like this!
There’s an aspect in your work that emerges quite clearly, and I think it might be tied to your personality: a note of sarcasm always surfaces in your images in different ways. Would you agree?
It’s funny that you could notice a little sarcasm in my paintings because I think it’s very subtle. In any case, I do not consider that sarcasm to be entirely intentional or conscious. Being partly surrealist, I think I have a symbolic and metaphorical facet to my work.
I never mean to be disrespectful in my paintings, although some images I’ve created might be regarded as provocative.
I’m talking about my Jesus and Saint paintings with an extra third eye, which I honestly consider more symbolic and are actually related to some interpretations of the holy trinity and representations of enlightenment. As a teenager I used a lot of sarcasm in a funny way, so I guess this feature of my personality has evolved into a form of expression, from conscious verbalization to unconscious figurative representation. Lately I’ve been trying to use it to reveal my concerns with the modern world and environmental issues.
It’s hard to get a glimpse of the stories that lie behind your works. Often there are mysterious apparitions and presences from who knows what world, which you hold still in images which provide a reality for what we are viewing. Eyes, sacred iconography, anthropomorphic animals, skulls, etc… where do you get your inspiration from?
There was a time when I got my inspiration from pop culture, iconic television series and the entire fictional universe they spawned. Nowadays I see more and more of me in my paintings: my memories, my childhood, my worries, and nostalgia for a world I never knew.
The main inspiration in my painting The Nurse and the Starfish was a song by Antony and the Johnsons, called “Cripple and the Starfish”.
Holding the starfish is a nurse who represents my mother. She was a nurse in real life, but she was always the healing force of my soul. My new body of work is becoming a bit introspective. Many of the characters I use in my paintings are my own projections and through the pictures that make up my work I can convey my thoughts and emotions. I’m still exploring classic paintings and portraits, but with a particular twist – like gimp masks and anthropomorphic animals that represent a metamorphosis which brings these beings closer to mankind.
Do you have any quirks that only the mind of an artist can reveal?
That’s a difficult question. I can’t think of anything in particular, but I’ve noticed that I’m a little obsessed with hearing and seeing things, listening to the news for example, word by word, or getting the speech of a character in a movie. When I was a little kid I watched TV like I was absorbing all those images in my brain, that’s what my nanny used to say to my mother.
Could you say a few words about technique and dimensions?
A few years ago I painted mostly with acrylics and I used to draw a lot with charcoal and graphite. Lately I just paint with oils, and I think it will stay that way for a long time. Oil colors are the best medium for my expectations, and I feel really comfortable using them, which gives me more time to spend on the details.
I would say that my paintings range between small and medium-size dimensions, but I’m looking forward to larger formats.
You also have a very well-defined color palette, right? No shading but “thick” color and strong contrasts, like images taken with the flash of a camera.
It’s true that I have a well-defined color palette, but I don’t think all my paintings look like high-contrast photographs. “The Sailor”, for example, has a really strong shadow on the main figure but the picture I used as a reference was taken during a sunny day without any artificial light. However, I do agree about the thick color, which gives the impression of really solid shapes. Not that I’m using a large amount of oils to achieve that effect – essentially I make at least three layers to build up the whole painting, it almost feels like sculpting with paint.
Do you work on a commission basis or do you make your series of works according to the exhibitions you’re invited to?
I rarely do commissions but work mostly for exhibitions, which gives me a lot of freedom to create my work in pursuit of my own ideas, concepts, and sometimes even dreams. Most galleries don’t give me any specific size or defined theme, and that’s great. Regarding commissions, I usually accept the ones that allow me to manage the topic or that are related to my earlier work.
In closing: what’s the right way to define your work and style with just a few adjectives?
To keep it really simple: my style is in the scope of pop surrealism and fantasy art.