By ASHLEY GARRETT, JAN. 2015
Brooklyn based painter Katherine Bernhardt is well known and loved by both critics and artists for her iconic gestural paintings, which have evolved over recent years from brazen fashion models to textile-based abstractions to patterned pop imagery. I was curious to speak with Bernhardt after critical response to “The Forever Now” show now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York mentioned artists, including Bernhardt herself, who may have been included in the show. We spoke via email in December 2014.
Ashley Garrett: You were mentioned in recent press by both Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz about “The Forever Now” show at MoMA, where almost as much of the coverage has been about which painters were not included. It’s an interesting place to be in, being both inside and outside the conversation about contemporary painting simultaneously. What are your thoughts on “The Forever Now” show, and what’s your response to the critics?
Katherine Bernhardt: Painting is a real art, and it is great to have a show about painting but that show could have been done five years ago with those artists. All of those artists are already well known and part of the establishment. It’s not really a show about painting today, it’s about painting yesterday. Also, most of the artists in that show are my friends. I like several of the works there. But I don’t care that I’m not in it. Obviously it would be great to be in a show at Moma, but there will be other shows. There could have been about five more shows since that one about the current state of painting. Also that show is all crammed in it but’s good though that Laura Hoptman gave 50% of the space to female painters. But since the critics are all talking about how I’m not in that show, it’s like I’ve been reeled into the show anyway. Moma and PS1 should have been doing painting shows constantly. Gavin Brown is doing a big group painting show in January, and he will include much more of what’s really going on in the painting world; it will be much more inclusive and a reflection of what’s going on in painting today. You can see my work there.
AG: Can you talk about your transition from figuration focused on fashion models to abstract patterns based on textiles and collaged with fabric to patterned pop imagery, such as the work in your last solo show at Canada gallery? What drove this shift for you?
KB: It just happened naturally. Work evolves. I just get interested in different things. After the fashion model women I made giant Swatches, then I went to Morocco and looked at carpets and saw amazing design patterns and colors in them, and I started painting them. I have a really good quote from the movie Adaptation that kind of explains how you can go from one thing to another, this is the scene: Susan (journalist): “So how many turtles did you end up collecting?” Laroche: “Oh, I lost interest right after that. Dropped turtles when I fell in love with ice age fossils. Collected the shit out of ‘em. Fossils were the only thing that made sense to me in this fucked-up world. Ditched fossils for re-silverin’ old mirrors. Mom and I had the largest collection of 19th c. Dutch mirrors on the planet. Perhaps you read about us: Mirror World, October 1988. I have a copy here somewhere.” Susan: “I guess I’d just like to know how you can detach from something that you have invested so much of your soul in, I mean, didn’t you ever miss turtles, the only thing that made your ten-year-old life worth living?” Laroche: “Look I’ll tell you a story, ‘right. I once fell deeply, you know, profoundly in love with tropical fish. Had sixty god-damn fish tanks in my house. I skin dived to find just the right ones. Anasiltriumus virginicus, paulcanfaciliers, traiterdon capostratus, you name it, then one day I say, fuck fish. I renounce fish. I vow never to set foot in that ocean again, that’s how much fuck fish. That was 17 years ago and I have never once since stuck so much as a toe in the ocean, and I love the ocean. Susan: “But why?” Laroche: “Done with fish.” Susan: “If you really loved something, wouldn’t a little bit of it linger…?
Laroche goes from one thing to another, and things evolve naturally through interests, you become less interested in certain things and fascinated with other new things. In my case looking at rugs for so long made the collages happen after looking at tons of shapes. And after that other things came. From walking around NYC one day I saw graffiti near Union Square, graffiti that included a popsicle, a smiley face, a watermelon, a dollar sign and something else. I thought, wow, that’s a good graffiti and I took pictures of it. So I appropriated those images and then I made paintings in that fashion. The first one I made was of smiley faces, bananas, and it became a crazy smiley face banana painting. I have always tried to use images in my life that I always see. I was trying to make the dumbest or the funniest painting that I could make. The stupidest dumbest craziest and funniest—combining imagery out there from today and based on my love of textiles and patterns and of traditional African fabrics. I love those fabrics, and I wanted it to be something like those African fabrics. So I came up with my idea for my current paintings. The second one I made was of watermelons and telephones. Overload of imagery in Flatbush, things in my daily street life, African fabrics, Moroccan rugs, graffiti – I put it all in one painting.
AG: What was your first encounter with painting?
KB: I made an oil painting in 9th grade in art class at school. It was messy, and I didn’t understand how the paint moved or worked. I only had black, blue and white as colors available, and I didn’t understand how to make colors, shades or tones. So it was really difficult to make a good picture. In relation to looking at other people’s paintings, as a child I remember being dragged around by my father through museums and churches all around France and Italy. But I don’t remember any of them.
AG: What are you working on now?
KB: Every second I look at things and think about them. I’m really looking forward to the Gavin Brown show, then I’m doing a major installation in a private collection, and I’m going to have a solo show in September at Venus over Manhattan.
AG: What do you think about the role of painting today? How does it function now and how do you see it developing in the future? Do you think there are possibilities left in abstract and figurative painting?
KB: Yes, obviously there are possibilities left in painting. People are inventing new things every day. Painting and drawing is the basis of all art in the world, and it will always be like this, and it is always changing. WM
Ashley Garrett is an artist living and working in New York City. She earned her BFA from the School of Visual Arts in 2008. While at SVA she attended a summer painting residency at Escola Superior de Disseny i Art (Llotja) in Barcelona, Spain. Ashley is also a contributor to Painting is Dead and Figure/Ground.view all articles from this author