|Girls, Girls, Girls|
|Girls, girls, girls|
Last Updated: March 28. 2009 8:30AM UAE / March 28. 2009 4:30AM GMT
Painter Katherine Bernhardt takes fashion photos, magazine spreads and famous models as her subject, conveying critique and obsession in the same messy strokes. Simon Houpt asks the New Yorker about inspirations and intentions ahead of her Dubai show next month.
Here’s how glamorous it is to be a New York artist: the other day, when a visitor dropped by Katherine Bernhardt’s second-floor walk-up studio on a graffiti-scarred block of Flatbush, Brooklyn, Bernhardt answered the door in her winter coat. Behind her, plastic sheeting covered the windows, a poor attempt to keep out the winter chill.
“There’s no hot water,” she explained later, seated next to a portable electric radiator, as a radio a few feet away poured out a mix of rap and mellow R&B. “Sometimes the pipes freeze and there’s no water at all, so then I can’t work. And you can’t paint under 32 degrees, either, because the paint cracks.”
All the fire is in Bernhardt’s paintings. They are large-scale, messy canvases of celebrity heat, gaudy deconstructions of the pop culture iconography found in fashion magazines across the globe. Here are the mono-named temptresses who populate our commercial dreams: Kate and Agyness and Giselle (oh my), their familiar faces and bodies distorted in these paintings yet still recognisable. The titles of Bernhardt’s shows flick at the fever: Drunken Hot Girls, 96 Degrees in the Shade, Frisky Flaming Hot, In Search of Love & Fire.
On April 2, Bernhardt will make her Dubai debut at Carbon 12 with Wonder Women, a collection of new canvases that trots out many of her favourite subjects: a reconstituted Max Mara ad, a reclining Heidi Klum, Kate Moss in Versace, and a 6’x8’ canvas titled I (heart) Gisele that reduces the supermodel to her essential elements: a slashing neon pink mouth, angular deep blue eyes, a halo of wavy blonde hair.
She paints (when it is warm enough) holding the torn-out page of a fashion magazine in one hand and a hardware-grade brush in the other, slapping on thick riverbeds of acrylic that drip punkishly down the canvas. In a brief review of her show last year at the Lower East Side gallery Canada, a New Yorker critic said Bernhardt’s work suggested what might have happened “if a German Expressionist like Emil Nolde had cribbed his subjects from People”.
Bernhardt wouldn’t quibble with that assessment, but then she’s open to pretty much any interpretation she hears. Just don’t tell her it looks easy. “It’s kind of sloppy and messy,” she acknowledges. “And it is kind of childlike and it looks easy. I think it is really funny when people tell me, ‘Oh, that’s so easy, anyone could do that,’ because if they actually try, they can’t.”
One critic admired the way she had appropriated the airbrushed forms of supermodels and returned the women to their raw, primitive selves. “I thought that was good,” Bernhardt says with a laugh and a cypher’s smile: she will not have her intentions pinned down.
She is drawn to paint “women I think are really awesome or hot, or I just like their personality,” she says. “If I didn’t like them, I wouldn’t paint them.”
At 33 years old, Bernhardt remains as easily star-struck as an adolescent. The other day, she went to the opening of a Vanessa Beecroft show merely because she’d heard the rap star Kanye West would be in attendance.
“Sometimes I’ll see celebrities walking around Manhattan, and I’ll follow them for a block or two,” she giggles, rattling off her sightings like a birder. “I’ve seen David Bowie once or twice, and I know where he lives. I’ve seen lots of models. Helena Christensen; me and my friend were like, ‘We love you!’
“I saw Linda Evangelista, that was amazing. She was at Gagosian [Gallery]. She was amazing. Just, like, seeing her, was, like, unreal. She was, like, seven feet tall.”
Asked about the title of her Dubai exhibition, Bernhardt offers a pithy summary of the Wonder Women’s thematic core: “Women are wonderful, and these are ones I like, that have done things that are interesting.”
To be fair, she may still be getting used to that title. She had wanted to call the show, “She’s About the Baddest Girl I’ve Ever Seen, Straight Up Outta Magazine”, a riff on a lyric from Kanye West’s song Robocop, but says Carbon 12’s owner told her it might offend visitors. “I was really mad, actually, when he told me I couldn’t have the right title.”
It’s not the first time she’s tangled with the commercial machines bringing her work to a wider audience. In the fall of 2007, Bernhardt created an installation at the Chanel store on the Upper East Side for a watch launch, and though the experience was “freeing, because I got to do something different”, she says company lawyers looked askance at her appropriations of their intellectual property. “I had to sign my life away on contracts,” she hisses. “It was ridiculous.”
True, but it may have inspired her towards a whole new line of material. Having painted women for the last five or six years, she’s losing the urge; lately, she’s been mulling a series of Swatch watch paintings. She’s ordered some on eBay – she’s sporting one today, with an Egypt theme executed in a New Wave circa-1982 aesthetic – and has been trawling magazines looking for ads.
On one level, of course, Swatches are like the fashion models: both are important elements of the consumer economy, flaunting slick surfaces to appeal to people. For Bernhardt, there’s also the deeper fact that her obsession with the models and the watches stretches back to her days growing up in St Louis, Missouri.
“I’m trying to get back into where it came from, my childhood, stuff like that,” she says. Why not? First-time novelists frequently revisit their childhood to settle the unresolved questions from that time in their lives. But with Bernhardt’s success now making her a part of the very crowd she has watched from afar, will she lose the fuel for her work? Last year, at the Saatchi Gallery opening in London, she was introduced to Nick Rhodes, the Duran Duran keyboardist.
“He was, like, the most amazing person I’ve ever met,” she says. “He came to my London opening, came to my studio, took pictures” – she laughs suddenly, as if the pleasure of the encounter is still too much to hold inside – “and then they came to New York and invited me to their show and then their after-party for their world tour. It was awesome!”
Rhodes, she says, gave her his e-mail address, and they were corresponding for a while, “but I didn’t want to bug him”, so she scaled it back.
OK, so, sure, her studio gets cold. But maybe being Katherine Bernhardt has its share of glamour, too.
Wonder Women will be on display at Carbon 12 in Dubai from April 2 until May 6.