Katherine Bernhardt – Wonder Women
Text by Albert Allgaier
Fast, hasty, confused: scribbled and smeared, dripping and damp. One can nearly smell the strong scent of fresh paint, hear the last brush strokes being made, feel the vibrant atmosphere of the ups and downs of a life in the fast lane. The setting up of the canvas seems to take longer than the actual act of painting itself. Anxiety-ridden, obsessive and on the edge. The choice of subject: today’s glossy glamour world projected by the seemingly endless stream of the mass-mediatised pictures of the beautiful, sick, elegant and schizophrenic catwalk fairytale.
The style of painting, obsessively enthusiastic, idiosyncratic, we might call it pop-expressionist, post-punk or cartoon-brut. Or as Brett Easton Ellis put it in Glamourama: “The better you look, the more you see”. A self-sufficient, nonchalant statement that leaves no choice but going for broke, the so-called world as the total opposite of the transcendent individual: Pray for a wonder, or become the wonder yourself.
The vicious cycle of glamour and calamity, the dialectic opposition of subject and style, form a comprehensive unit like the ouroborus, the snake that swallows its own tail. The eternal return of the question of beauty, the vast desert of desires to be fulfilled, the thin line between self-representation and superficiality. The cathartic act of Katherine Bernhardt’s paintings reveal a forward-pushing position in today’s complex post-feminist discourse on the representation of the gendered individual.
Where the traditional categories of male/female are no longer stable constants of our life, the reconsideration of the modes of representation is vital. Where the discourse timidly draws a line, Katherine Bernhardts takes a giant leap forward, literally sweeping away the fragile construction of the prefix and replaces it with a bold statement, written with the thick paint of self-assertion in the truest sense of the word. There is neither pre nor post, and the paradigms of modernity are long lost anyway. Dropping prefixes like rhymes, creating artworks as fashion lines: The concept is simple and in-your-face. Take it or leave it.
Both in subject and style, there is a raw energy, a lust for life. The glamour of today’s public faces from Vogue and Harper's Bazaar collide with a slash-strike brush style and the aggressiveness of abstract expressionism that neglects the fragility of the subject itself. With an impulsive act of deconstruction the language of attraction is attacked, questioned and redefined. The decadence of an image-ridden society of consumption, the society of the spectacle that obfuscates the past, the process of imploding with the future into an undifferentiated mass, a type of never ending present, is brought to a halt. The frozen expression of the portrayed faces, the drips on the verge of drying: the contemplative moment, the step back, finally gives room to reflect on the social relationship mediated by images. In a world where the heartbeat is conducted by the stock market and life’s experience can be reduced to numbers and graphs, a return to the portrait, the classic subject going through the history of painting, is not only mesmerizing but a political statement as well.
Speaking with Guy Debord, Katherine Bernhardt’s developed a détournement-style way of breaking the barriers of the contemporary consumer culture and its impact on the “commoditization” of the image fetish. Having excavated through mountains of fashion magazines with their photo-shopped simulacra, the seemingly endless perversion of staged aesthetic representation of postmodern aesthetic. Katherine Bernhardt’s obsession oscillates between destructive radicalism and provident melancholy.
The love-hate relationship with her subjects is reflected in her ambiguous style: Themes of a canvas-chronicled love affair clash with the psychological profile of a notorious stalker. Bernhardt meets with Ellis and Debord exactly at this point of the paraphilia of existence, the alienation of the everyday where only a strong presence can uphold, where the production of cultural goods is seen as a subversive act of countercultural practice against the establishment, for the establishment, with the establishment. This contradictory setting of a semantic roundabout needs a strong hand at the wheel, or to be more precise: the brush.
This sincere authenticity combined with the authority of a true character makes the difference between a girl who tries to make up her hair like she just got out of bed, and the one who really just woke up after a night jam-packed with adventures. It makes you feel the playfulness, the fascination, the curiosity: far from resignation Katherine Bernhardt’s paintings are still light-footed and come with a hint of irony, a constant tongue-in-cheek kind of subtext that denies any given feminist approach towards the subject. They resist a simple, unidirectional interpretation; they fight the process of objectification. The appropriation into the collective consciousness in any context is not an option, because of the strong individual character of each of the series’ paintings. Where any discursive approach sooner or later leads to a dead-end of mere words without the energy of their original source, we have to reconsider the prime motive of the paintings: this beautiful, hideous thing called life, with all of its chaotic and cosmic forms of appearance and its aesthetic manifesto, the things we enjoy to see, the pleasure of colour, the indulgence of shape.
Therefore Katherine Bernhardt’s paintings function more like distorting mirrors of our gorgeous, twisted reality, allowing a reflection on the process of imagination and imaging, perceiving our life by observing the others. The eternal struggle of the individual with the collective, the prominent urge to bear the comparison, to stand out from the crowd. Facing the cursed character of the image that sacrifices the aura for a unified, a synchronous reality dictated by pictures as the worst enemy of the individual subject, Katherine Bernhardt’s paintings have the strength and will mark a turning point. Let’s reconsider the balance of power of the image, transform it into a painting, a portrait of mediation, a sign of will. So it’s up to us to decide if we nod our heads to the beat of life in consent or with resentment, just waiting for the next syncope to break out. Only the wonder women of today, be they on or in front of the backdrop of the scene, can do both, because this is, 'Bout the baddest girl I ever seen. Straight up outta Magazine.’