Michael Berryhill, “Happy Ending” (2020), oil on linen, 36 x 30 inches (photo by Elisabeth Bernstein, all images courtesy the artist and Kate Werble Gallery, New York)

At a time when quirkiness often feels contrived, and a widespread attitude seems to all but insist that art deliver its content front and center, Michael Berryhill has developed a powerful, resistant, and important alternative. It begins with the fusion of a distinct palette with a process of addition and subtraction that enables the artist to work everything out on the rough weave of the painting’s linen surface.

Berryhill’s Day-Glo palette, which shares something with Odilon Redon’s rich, ethereal color and Raoul Dufy’s heightened ambient light, seems inspired by painting’s past as much it is by the fluorescent artifice of computer screens. However, the hues and combinations he attains are all his own, as is his technique of applying them.

Like the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism, many of whom developed personal techniques for applying their medium to the painting’s surface, Berryhill also works in a very particular way, which dissolves the borders between drawing and painting.

In contrast to Willem de Kooning and others who liked to draw with a loaded brush, Berryhill uses a small brush and dry brushstrokes to apply his pigments, often to a surface that he has scraped down, leaving ghostly shapes. At times his method bears comparison to raking an oil stick across a rough surface, but he possesses far more control, nuance, and delicacy than that would suggest.

“Michael Berryhill: Solo Exhibition” at Kate Werble Gallery, installation view (photo by Elisabeth Bernstein)

In addition to the drily painted lines he uses to convey a contour or to separate one area from another, Berryhill optically animates his paintings through combinations of odd complimentary hues.

Berryhill is interested in the area of perception spanning legibility and illegibility, the crystalline and the fuzzy. What is the relationship between seeing and memory? How much have our perceptions of the world been shaped by the culture or religion in which we were raised? Where does the border between the commonplace and the unique begin to dissolve? What is shared and what remains private?

By raising these questions in his work, Berryhill reveals his preoccupation with painting’s capacity for the imaginative and solitary, rather than with its ability to explore social interactions, be they interpersonal or public.

In his current show, Michael Berryhill: Solo Exhibition (September 24 – November 12, 2020) at Kate Werble Gallery, which has temporarily relocated from its Tribeca space to the second floor of a townhouse on 73rd Street, between Madison and Park, the artist’s subjects range from an oversized turquoise blue parrot grasps a paintbrush with one claw and a circular palette with the other (“Painting Parrot,” 2020) to elusive forms set within proscenium-like structures (“Halcyon” and “Amazing Place,” both 2020) to works that sit squarely between abstraction and representation without sliding fully into either (the large, marvelously perplexing “Reservoir,” 2020). Along with the seven paintings on display, which range in scale from 14 by 11 inches to 70 by 60 inches, Berryhill is showing three sculptures — the first time he has done so.

Michael Berryhill, “Painting Parrot” (2020), oil on linen, 51 3/4 x 40 inches (photo by Elisabeth Bernstein)

At times, I sense a clash between his upbeat neon colors and his subject matter – one recurring motif being the parrot, which is known for its perfect mimicry but not for its originality. More importantly, I felt a friction between his serious side and his self-deprecating humor. This friction is most eloquently expressed in “Painting Parrot.” Once viewers absorb the parrot’s turquoise plumage, magenta beak, red eye, and crimson claws, along with its brush and palette, they might notice the ambiguities filling the rest of the painting.

What is the pink geometric plane behind the parrot? Is it a solid surface or a stream of light? Is it a vertical wall or horizontal floor? Its ambiguity destabilizes our reading of the painting, which adds to our engagement with its possible meanings.

Symbolically, what does it mean that Berryhill depicts the parrot, whose identity is inseparable from its capacity for mimicry, as a painter? Is it a comment on the pursuit of originality? Can mimicry be an expression of authenticity? Can it refer to a visionary artist copying down his visions in a drawing or a painting, as August Natterer or Forrest Bess claimed to have done?

Michael Berryhill, “Painter” (2020), oil on linen, 38 x 30 inches (photo by Elisabeth Bernstein)

With this in mind, what are we to make of the faded, ethereal atmosphere of “Painter” (2020). A woman with a blue-tinged milky complexion is seen in profile against a pink ground stumbled over a previous layer of blue, which peeks through. The worn surface evokes the passing of time, as if we are encountering a memory.

The painter wears a white blouse or smock with puffy sleeves. Her right hand is applying a paintbrush to the right edge of the actual canvas, whose border eclipses the painting-within-the-painting. We cannot see what she sees or what she is working on. The world she inhabits is literally and symbolically parallel to ours; we are unable to enter it. This denial suggests that painting, however public it becomes, remains a private act.

The world “halcyon” can refer to a mythical bird that nested in the ocean and calmed the sea; an Asian or African kingfisher with bright plumage; or a calm, idyllic period from the past. In Berryhill’s painting “Halcyon,” we see a long-necked bird seemingly trapped inside a box-like structure, its low top preventing the bird from raising its head. Around the structure Berryhill has painted a blue plane, suggesting sky and freedom. Does being a painter mean you confined by the painting, or that you have consciously elected to work within a painting’s physical borders?

At the same time, does the enclosing structure suggest a temporary sanctuary from the world? Berryhill’s enclosure doesn’t strike me as all that sturdy, which I think is the point. Painting is a fiction the artist chooses to believe in.

This does not mean it is an escape from reality, a pure fantasy, at least in Berryhill’s case. Chaos and mortality still await us, as his painting of a large, red, grinning skull makes clear.

Michael Berryhill, “Amazing Place” (2020), oil on linen panel, artist’s frame, 21 1/4 x 17 1/4 inches (photo by Elisabeth Bernstein)

And what exactly is the nature of Berryhill’s belief? I think we get a clue in the painting “Amazing Place,” which measures 21 ¼ by 17 ¼ inches. It is the only work in the exhibition that is framed — a simple wood floating frame made by the artist.

The painting, which is largely blue and orange, contains at its center, within the blue outline of an archway, an elemental notation of a head and torso. The archway is surrounded by a field of deep orange, with hints of red and patches of unpainted linen. Four blue paint strokes radiate from the right side of the archway across the orange zone, stopping just short of its border.

Although largely abstract, “Amazing Place” reminded me of the various paintings of the Virgin of Guadalupe, who is depicted standing inside a cocoon-like aura marked by sharp rays of light. The ambiguity of the interior shape in Berryhill’s composition, which can be read as a figure as well as a keyhole, underscores the artist’s sense of painting’s metaphysical possibilities without ever becoming heavy-handed.

Through this work, Berryhill conveys a belief that painting – the thing itself, to use a term favored by the poet William Carlos Williams – is an “amazing place” where transformations and the miraculous can still occur.

“Michael Berryhill: Solo Exhibition” at Kate Werble Gallery, installation view (photo by Elisabeth Bernstein)

In the mixed-media “19 Millbrook Lane” (2020), one of the three sculptures in the show, a flat red-and-white profile reminded me of a parrot’s beak, while the three rounded, painted and angled planes behind it unfold like a book or open like a door. That it is titled after a street address (as is the case with another sculpture, “5520 Pembroke,” 2020, both of which rest on faux-architectural columns), suggests that the Berryhill views art as a physical place, a palpable locus of meaning.

Berryhill’s strengths are many, not the least of which is his pursuit of something that is not immediately nameable or easy to commodify. He further strengthens this pursuit by not settling into a style, moving between abstraction and figuration without conveying an allegiance to either. His quest, which is unlike anyone else’s, strikes me as a major and singular undertaking.

Michael Berryhill: Solo Exhibition continues at Kate Werble Gallery (136 East 73rd Street, Floor 2, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through November 12.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook,...