Wednesday, October 1st, 2003

Notes on Ellen Berkenblit

Ellen Berkenblit, A Day on Blueberry Street, 2003. Spray paint and enamel on mesh metal, 66 x 87 inches. Images courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, New York.
Ellen Berkenblit, A Day on Blueberry Street, 2003. Spray paint and enamel on mesh metal, 66 x 87 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 it.

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.

Ellen Berkenblit, Pink Flowers on Fence, 2000. Oil on linen, 40 x 36 inches
Ellen Berkenblit, 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 path.

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 artists.