Katherine Bernhardt’s pieces are fluid and free-spirited and incorporate an element of chance, while stemming from images that get stuck in her head. They are made up of vivid colors and are usually large.
Bernhardt first became known around 2007 for her paintings of magazine models rendered with quick, thick strokes of paint, lines which often dripped like thickly applied mascara or foundation mixed with sweat or tears. However, when asked if these paintings were meant to be critical, Bernhard has indicated that they were rather a product of her obsession with fashion models and magazines; images she kept going back to.
In recent years, Bernhardt has turned her attention to patterns. She attributes the switch to a fascination with Dutch wax printing on African fabric, the patterned fabric that in Africa is most often used to make clothing. In a 2015 interview with Artspace, Bernhardt said of these patterns, “They have all these funny combinations of things that wouldn’t necessarily go together—sunglasses and birds, or whatever it might be . . . Maybe I just like the humor in them . . . these funny placements and juxtapositions.”
Bernhardt has incorporated a similar sense of whimsy in her own pattern making, which, like her paintings of models, seem to also instinctively raise questions about larger sociological matters.
Her large-scale painting process is notable. She begins by laying her canvases on the floor. Then she works from above, outlining in spray paint and coloring with watered-down acrylic paint, which bleeds and pools at will. Though Bernhardt’s hues are bright and her juxtapositions playful, her process lends her paintings a darker edge, a sense that things can easily drift and fall; the world is messy and cannot be neatly packaged, nor simply uplifted with fun colors.
While usually painted, Bernhardt’s patterns have moved into sculpture or into collage when she has collaborated with her husband, Youssef Jdia, with whom she also owns a rug importing business called Magic Flying Carpets of the Berber Kingdom of Morocco.
In Green, currently on view at Canada, Bernhardt has continued her large-scale pattern painting, while also returning to figuration in the forms of such iconic characters as the Pink Panther, Babar, and Darth Vader. Also featured in the show, are a series of organically shaped wood sculptures painted hot pink.
Green makes reference to the dystopian science-fiction thriller, Soylent Green, in which the greenhouse effect has led to a vast deterioration of the environment and human society where the major food source is a product called Soylent Green, which is, in fact, packaged human remains died green. In her piece entitled Climate Change (2017), Bernhardt has grouped together large avocados, Nike swooshes, Oaxacan bird symbols, and cigarettes emitting puffs of black smoke, all outlined in bright green. Together, the images mire the viewer in the battle between the forces of preservation and the forces of progress.
In Dole + Darth vader (2017), the canvas is largely taken over by the figure of Darth Vader who stands, lightsaber in hand, against a backdrop of floating banana bunches. Surrounded by the bananas, the red beam emanating from Darth’s saber may remind the viewer of Dole’s iconic logo made up of the company’s name in red lettering, sunlight bursting from the “O.” Together, the images easily bring to mind issues of patriarchy and colonialism.
Laundry day (2017) is almost totally colored with hot pink. However, outlined at the center is a large image of the Pink Panther, which is surrounded by floating socks, toilet paper rolls, and a cigarette ending in a puff of black smoke. Bernhardt has said that the Pink Panther is a favorite character of her son’s and has expressed a particular fondness for the colors and shapes that combine on gym socks. This is one of her pieces where the iconic particular melds with the quotidian and the artist’s particular life story. One can almost feel the socks tumbling round inside a washing machine.
Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup pieces speak to commercialism and consumerism. They also emerge from his own consumption of soup for lunch for over 20 years. Bernhardt’s art similarly mixes pop icons and the mundane, while catching bits of her personal life—elements of repeated visits to the Caribbean, pieces of the Berber rugs she imports—which, when grouped together, beckon her viewers to question the society we live in. One may even wonder if Warhol’s Green Disaster was somewhere in the back of Bernhardt’s mind when putting Green together.
Though Katherine Bernhardt’s work feels quite familiar in some ways, it still surprises. Like lotto balls, one never knows which images will pop up together on any given canvas. One never knows where paint will drip and pool. And, though the same objects may be represented repeatedly, no two rolls of toilet paper or socks ever look alike.
January 5, 2017 – February 11, 2018
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