Katherine Bernhardt’s work is nothing if not repetitive, producing colorful, swirling landscapes of repeated graphic motifs, often using variations on a theme to produce a sort of constellation of the everyday. For her most recent show at Canada Gallery, she returns to this mode of practice. Cigarettes and Nike logos are a frequent occurrence, as are pizza, tropical fruits and even the occasional insect. The show, which draws its name and inspiration in part from the classic Charlton Heston futuristic nightmare film Soylent Green, is equally invested in a sense of societal decline, pushing the artist’s own approach to figuration to stranger heights, twisting bodies ever further and images into an even more bizarre state of juxtaposition. The same ideas are present to be sure, but the artist’s use of this same repetitive motif, one she has used over the past several years since debuting the approach at Canada three years ago, has been pushed to intense new vistas.
Bernhardt’s work, in this decidedly self-reflexive approach to the canvas, equally turns itself into a sort of echo chamber for the language of pop culture that surrounds each work. Here, Bernhardt has turned her attention in earnest to the recently released Star Wars film, depicting storm troopers and the occasional portrait of Darth Vader against whirling backdrops of pizza and fruit. In another, a vividly slurred depiction of Garfield negotiates against a swarm of Nike logos. These works, in their candid approach to the portrait painting, welcome Bernhardt’s unique flair for colorful, exuberant action to mingle against specific subjects and forms. While other works return to Bernhardt’s previous swells of subject matter (a series in one room pairs massive, jaggedly executed cigarettes against a flurry of cartoonish bird heads), these present themselves more as deconstructed icons, riffs on religious depictions that replace any sense of the holy or the sacred with the language of the generic.
Bernhardt’s work feels particularly welcome in the tense political climate of the United States in 2018, a moment of exuberant color and stark wit that never loses site of the banal clutter of the modern day. These are works that are simultaneously dystopian and playful, twisting the language of modern pop through a series of signifiers that constantly toy with semiotic disintegration while always allowing that same excess to serve its broader critique. For works that, on their face, seem particularly flippant in their depiction of pop culture, they reward a lingering glance, uncovering a strange sense of crisis and chaos that goes far deeper than the clear excess the images initially imply. This sense of vivid action and explosive cultural materiality serves Bernhardt well, and continues to drive her work into new realms of expression.
The show is on view through February 11th.
— D. Creahan
Katherine Bernhardt: GREEN [Canada]