Notes on... Ellen
Berkenblit, by Deven Golden
A Day on Blueberry Street, 2003
spray paint and enamel on mesh metal, 66 x 87 inches;
23, 2003: Untitled, 2003
watercolor, ink and graphite on paper, 12 x 9 inches.Images
courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, New York.
Ellen Berkenblit has been
one of my favorite artists for years. I visited her studio once in the
mid-nineties, and have done my best to see her shows whenever possible.
A painter of expressionist, hermetic narratives, Berkenblit's work can
be simultaneously colorful, dark, moody, and humorous. With her recurring
cast of characters - that include an angry kitten and the woman with
the striking profile to name but two - she has managed to create a strange
yet complete netherworld that exists somewhere between Ernst-Ludwig
Kirchner and A.A. Milne.
Like Kirchner and his German
Expressionist peers, but with a contemporary feel, Berkenblit's process
over the years has depended heavily on deeply emotive brush handling
and a propensity for dense, acidic colors. There has always been a sense
of urgency to her work as well, with some earlier canvases setting up
a juxtaposition of rapid brush strokes and large, unpainted expanses.
They are edgy, uncompromising paintings that encode much that is personal;
they require a great deal from their viewers, and offer significant
rewards in return.
Berkenblit's latest show
was at Anton Kern in New York this September, and it featured seven
new paintings and eighteen drawings. The building that Anton Kern occupies
on 20th Street began life as a garage. The lighting in the main gallery
is flat, and the overall dimensions tend to be deadening for viewing
paintings - too much floor and too little wall might be one way to describe
Unfriendly space it may be,
Berkenblit's drawings managed to hold their own. All about the same
size as a sheet of notebook paper (which, keeping with their diarist
nature, is a definite asset), they continue the artist's ongoing and
well established narrative. What, exactly, this narrative alludes too
is hard to say, but looking at her drawings elicits a complicated mixture
of feelings. Intimacy co-exists with embarrassment, playfulness with
anger, and underpinning it all a disquieting feeling that you are privy
to things that you weren't supposed to have seen.
Pink Flowers on Fence, 2000
oil on linen, 40 x 36 inches
While the drawings presented
themes and process quite familiar to those of us who have been following
Berkenblit's work, the paintings were a very, very different story -
and that's putting it mildly. Or, perhaps I should rephrase that: the
themes and narrative are still present and accounted for, but the process
for the large scale works has totally changed. Gone are 99% of the brush
strokes; paint is applied with spray can or compressor. Gone is the
brooding palette; pastel colors dominate every inch. Gone, even, is
the canvas; a metal latticework, more diamond shaped negative space
than ground, provides the only surface. Where Berkenblit's paintings
once ladled out a strange brew of children's visions and Weimar Republic
aesthetics, the new work echoes the graffiti art of the 1980s. Essentially,
then, everything about her process that I liked in her earlier paintings
is now gone.
Now, perhaps you are expecting
me to spend a few hundred more words elucidating how Berkenblit has
lost her way, how unsatisfying her new technique is. But I will not.
How is it possible that a stream of damning invective does not follow
"everything about her process that I liked in her earlier paintings
is now gone?" The answer is complicated, but can be outlined quite
simply: in a situation like this, I trust this artist.
While this might appear to
contradict the logic of being a critic, there are, in fact, a series
of critical decisions that inform it:
As I mentioned above, I've
followed this artist's work for nearly a decade. It has consistently
been exceptionally thoughtful. After ten years, one can assume in viewing
her new work that she did not approach it in any less serious manner.
While we as viewers might spend about an hour with the work, one can
also safely surmise that the artist has spent hundreds of hours with
her own work. She may, therefore, have gotten to a place with the her
process that, while currently opaque to us will become more transparent
after we have followed her a little while longer down this particular
Artists must continue to
develop their work. This is a given that no one would dispute. Unfortunately,
it is also in our nature as human beings to resist change - even more
so when we've become enamored with something. We want change, but at
our own time and in our own way. Ironically, this might very well cause
us to be disproportionately resistant when presented with a new direction
in the work of an artist we greatly admire.
Does this sound like a rationalization
to you? Perhaps it is. But it is hard won after years of working with
and looking at work by contemporary artists. How many times I have left
an artist's studio feeling disappointed in their new direction only
to realize, sometimes years later, that the direction they had taken
was the true and proper one.
So, does this mean that Berkenblit's
new paintings are actually good and that I just can't see it? Not necessarily.
But because of my long history with the artist's work, I strongly suspect
this may be possible. So I will go on looking at these works. Thinking,
perhaps, how the open lattice support and sprayed on colors might somehow
relate to and bring forward conceptually the large unpainted areas from
the earlier works. And I will most certainly be there when she unveils
her next body of work. Ellen Berkenblit continues to be one of my favorite
is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY
also by Deven Golden: The
Raw and the Cooked, Roland Flexner and Shirley Kaneda and
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