Katherine Bernhardt’s newest exhibition “Stupid, Crazy, Ridiculous, Funny Patterns” is the latest tour de force of young(ish) painterliness on view at Canada Gallery on the Lower East Side. The artist gained recognition several years ago for her ham-handed illustration of models taken from glossy fashion magazines; painted in dark, gutsy, hyperbole, those pictures were notable for their sardonic quality. Bernhardt has always been impressive for her ability to combine the immediate, seductive properties of paint with the infectious humor of topical pop culture. It would be easy to see her early portrayal of models as critical, which on some level it must have been, but in a 2010 discussion with Interview magazine she explained: “ Some people ask if I hate the models I paint, I say no, I don’t hate them, I’m obsessed with them.” It is this sort of childlike interest and obsessive focus that seems to define Bernhardt’s relatively fledgling but already mesmerizing career.
While her previous works seemed to rely on dense hyperbolic layers of messy paint, the works on display currently make repetitive use of flat, one-dimensional objects to create festive, youthful patterns. In her recent review of the exhibition, Roberta Smith opines. that “ Ms. Bernhardt emerges as a latter-day Pop Art process painter who looks to Color Field painting for her strong, soaked color and fast, no-margin-for-error technique.” These paintings do have a lightly painted, bright and cheerful nature to them, however it seems to me that unlike color field or pop artists, Bernhardt seems to revel in the unsuccessful — as well as the successful — portions of her sketchy canvasses.
In her work “Hamburgers, French Fries and Basketballs,” oblong golden forms are barely recognizable as french-fries, and her basketballs seem to do their irregular best to resist geometric uniformity. In many ways this work seems more like a sketch than it does a properly finished canvas. Each of the painting’s lumpy hamburgers is totally different, defying what might otherwise be seen as a kind of generic archetype. It is this provisional quality that lends the work visual power. The lush sloppiness of the works seems to invite the viewer into reliving the pleasure of art making: it is plain to see that the artist had tons of fun making these works.
In her previous series based on Persian rugs or models, the artist seemed to invest herself in the particular. Each of those earlier works found the artist engaged in the mirthful corruption of established subject matter. While those paintings were important for their ability to invest chaos and imperfection in visual systems of flawless beauty, her newest works are special for an entirely different reason. If Persian rugs and supermodels are very adult totems of beauty, Bernhardt’s new, ad hoc patterns are joyfully childlike. I imagine this is maybe what would emerge if Brooklyn artist Michael Scoggins‘ imaginary child alter ego learned to paint and decided to make wallpaper.
The repetition of domestic and everyday objects in palettes of high color seems to reference Dutch wax print Batik textiles (most famously known in the art world for their use in Yinka Shonibare’s installations). While there is at least a surface relationship to pop culture (and therefore pop art?), Bernhardt’s mosh pit of junk food and objects seems to exist of its own accord. The watermelons, phones, cigarettes, and tacos don’t exist for any reason other than to loiter around in an adolescent haze of sugar high euphoria. I don’t feel they need me for validation, as a consumer or a viewer. They seem to beg the question: if a piece of pizza falls in the forest and nobody is around to hear it, would it still invite you to have a dance party?
Katherine Bernhardt: Stupid, Crazy, Ridiculous, Funny Patterns is on view at Canada Gallery (333 Broome Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 2.