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Carbon 12

Private Gallery
"Brushes with Fame"
  Brushes with fame
Ed Lake

Last Updated: April 06. 2009 1:38PM UAE / April 6. 2009 9:38AM GMT

The artist Katherine Bernhardt mirrors her paintingof the singer/producer M.I.A., which is on show as part of hte exhibition Wonder Women at the Carbon 12 gallery in Dubai. Jeffrey R Biteng / The National

“I’m, like, totally obsessed with models. I try to follow them on the street. I look for them everywhere. I can’t get enough of it.” So the New York-based painter Katherine Bernhardt told Interview Magazine last year. But do we believe her?

At a first glance around her new show at Carbon 12 in Dubai, it’s an open and shut case. Models and honorary models – the fashion-forward singer M.I.A., the fame vampire Paris Hilton – stare out of every frame. “Stare” is the word, too: there’s something transfixing, something Medusa-like, about these images. Bernhardt’s portraits look blown apart by the force of their own glamour – features stuck on at crazy angles or flying off their faces altogether, limbs pared down to starved spindles, cheekbones sharp as shrapnel. Rilke wrote that beauty is the beginning of terror; these girls seem to have reached its apocalyptic aftermath. “If I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t paint them,” Bernhardt told Simon Houpt in The National last week. If that’s really how she feels, she’s got a funny way of showing it.

Dubai, 1st April 2009. Katherine Bernhardt mimics her M.I.A painting, at Carbon 12 Gallery in Marina View Towers. (Jeffrey E Biteng / The National)

And how does she show it? With a two-inch hardware brush. Goodness knows what she’d use if she felt like being mean. Bernhardt says she can complete several canvases a day; the thing that takes time is priming them with gesso. Then she sets to work with brush and cans of acrylic, splashing out a likeness of one of her favourite muses before casting it aside and moving on to the next. The results look every bit as fast as they are: disposable icons despatched with action-painter’s haste.

Speedy they may be. Breezy they aren’t. A fug of morbid compulsion hangs over this exhibition – titled, with lethal ambivalence, Wonder Women. Don’t think “wonder-workers”. Think “cabinet of wonders” – for this gallery of gamine limbs and retroussé noses, panda eyes and trout pouts is truly an enthusiast’s collection, hoarded up and gloated over. Bernhardt paints from fashion photo spreads and magazine advertisements, the same names cropping up again and again, the same faces recurring with still greater insistence. Entering her world is like entering some monstrous shrine – so much so, in fact, that one detects the whiff of the put-on. Confronted with the strange uniformity of her work, one moves from noting that, yes, she has a signature subject, to wondering if she might have some sort of fixation, to twigging that – perhaps – she’s playing a part.

This “total obsession” with models isn’t the cause of the work – it’s the point of it, the thing it’s there to convey. Bernhardt, one suspects, is no less play-acting here than the Chapman brothers were with their sculpture Hell, their toy-soldier genocide that they claimed was meant to look like something dug out of a hobbyist’s attic, a supremely unnerving found object. In her own way, Bernhardt is also trying to creep you out. Her superfandom is the real work. The paintings are just props.

They’re enticing ones, for all that. It has often been noted that Bernhardt recalls the frenzied, slashing approach of the expressionist pioneer Emil Nolde. It’s a vigorous look, long since adopted as visual shorthand for a certain late-19th century sort of desperate genius; nowadays, one tends to find Nolde paintings on the covers of Nietzsche or Dostoevsky paperbacks. And so the fact that Bernhardt is applying this overwrought style to so frivolous a subject as her favourite fashion stars is a joke you don’t need the whole model-obsession story to enjoy. It comes off within a single canvas. One can even imagine the more knowing breed of fashion maven buying a Bernhardt as a form of ironic self-reproach: this is what caring too much looks like.

Setting aside the artist’s big idea, there are individual felicities, too. Slap-dash though her style is, the artist often captures something elusive about her subjects. She catches Hilton’s strangely square and shallow jaw and watery eyes, an expression somehow both defiant and weak. Isn’t that precisely how Hilton appears? The painting is titled That’s Hot – one of the starlet’s catchphrases and perhaps her highest term of praise. A hot mess indeed.

The R&B singer Rihanna is shown looking over her shoulder as if at something she has left behind. The slashing brushstrokes of her eyelids drip like mascara carried down her cheeks on bitter tears. In her backless gown she looks skinny, frighteningly frail. Anyone who has picked up a celebrity magazine over the past few months would instantly connect the image to the star’s troubled – and allegedly violent – relationship with the singer Chris Brown. And they said the age of grand narratives was over.

The Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen is shown in a similarly averted pose, though to different effect, in I (heart) Gisele. Her yellow hair fans her shoulders; her eyes are an impossible tanzanite blue. The expression is at once contorted and oddly blank, a tragic mask without dramatic context. There’s no trace of Rihanna’s human vulnerability here: this Gisele is utterly alien. Heart her all you like, the picture seems to say. She won’t heart you back.

And if Bündchen is made to look remote, the American model Erin Wasson looks positively lethal. Her eyes are Clint Eastwood slits, her mouth a smirk of command. The blonde mane makes her look like a Manga hero. Bernhardt seems to have retouched the painting after it was shot for the exhibition catalogue. The details she added are telling: military epaulettes, deeply graven collarbones, creases at the mouth. In the earlier version, Wasson was an ivory-skinned Prince Charming; now she’s a cavalry officer, sizing the viewer up with a practised eye. If the title is to be believed, Bernhardt hearts her, too. Likewise the glaring, hipshot M.I.A., head cocked in an attitude of accusation.

On the strength of this exhibition, however, Bernhardt’s absolute favourite muse is Kate Moss. The British model appears four times – on occasion looking like a Bratz doll, at other times like a demon king. In Tinkerbell, a painting that Carbon 12 showed as part of its opening exhibition last year, Moss is eyeless, cadaverous, ecstatic. Representation falls apart: her torso is about the same length as her face. There’s a coffin-shaped arch over her head which might be her arms and might be her hair. Even by Bernhardt’s standards, the brushwork here is out of control: Moss seems to have been a lightning rod, catching the full force of her neurosis. One starts to doubt that Bernhardt is only play-acting her obsession. So frenzied, so entirely lacking in any saving note of irony is this painting, it throws the rest of the show into a sinister light. Perhaps she really means it after all. Or perhaps she’s just a good actor. Either way, Bernhardt is an intriguing talent. Get down to Carbon 12: wonders await.
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