While making your way through Hudson Valley’s pastoral countryside, it is easy to understand what inspired the Hudson River School of painters such as Thomas Cole and Federic Edwin Church. Your destination is Ghent, New York, a present day farming community about 20 or so miles north of the city of Hudson, and Olana, Church’s family estate, now a historic site. Passing halcyon landscapes, dotted with yellow dabs of color emanating from forsythia and daffodils, you arrive at Art Omi, a contemporary sculpture park, gallery, and international artists residency that rests on 120 + bucolic acres. After initially being greeted by Chicago artist, Tony Tasset’s giant sculpture of a fawn, you enter a contemporary edifice, the Beneson Center, housing the Newmark Gallery. BAM, to quote Roy Lichtenstein’s early pop painting, you have left the serene world of idealized romanticism and entered the universe of master painter, Katherine Bernhardt.
GOLD, the name of the exhibit, due to the lamé lines generously used throughout the paintings, primarily focuses on the Pink Panther and corporate culture’s ubiquitous trappings, such as Coca Cola bottles, Scotch Tape, and R2D2 toys to name a few. This Pink Panther is not your warm and cozy — somewhat clueless — kitty sleuth. This is a swanky, swaying aggressive cat that prowls around seeking to satisfy his desires and seduce you into imbibing along with him. Bernhardt appropriately describes her creation as, “tall, skinny, and hot”.
Initially, you are greeted by Subway, situated just outside the entrance to the gallery next to a floor to ceiling window looking out on a lush, green, rolling hill punctuated with massive contemporary sculptures. This introduction to the exhibit makes it abundantly clear that Bernhardt owns contemporary painting and is not cemented to any dogmatic style or school of thought. She uses it all. The background is poured acrylic paint; the panther emerges in stains of hot pink, rose, salmon and fuchsia that, without the image, would be reminiscent of early color field painting. His eyes are a washy lime green with dried blood colored tears flowing down his cheeks. Spray paint squiggles accentuate and add a feeling of graffiti to the overall impression. With one hand on his hip and another hand raised, he is the welcoming committee.
Newmark Gallery is a classic rectangular space — white walls and a cement floor. Perfect for Bernhardt’s fluorescent liquidy greens, hallucinogenic day-glo pinks and purples. Six medium to enormous paintings occupy the space. Pink Panther + Scotch Tape + Green Plantains, the largest at 120” x 240,” depicts a dancing panther raving in the midst of flying plantains and 3M scotch tape dispensers. The suspended objects create a pattern similar to traditional works of art where tapestries, mosaics and clothing designs acted as a counterpoint to the depicted figure. In several of the paintings the panther is not pink at all, but purple or magenta, giving him a more louche character.
In Coca, the panther is puce embedded in a field of Coca Cola bottles, some small and some large. Again, dark rust colored tears run down his cheeks as he gives two thumbs up to the quintessential American symbol of corporate omnipotence. The smallest painting, Love Online, is the only piece that includes another panther, a female. The male is larger and towers over the smaller feline holding her back evoking images of the Minotaur, a Greek mythological monster with the body of a man and head and tail of a bull frequently referenced throughout art history.
For ten or more years, Katherine Bernhardt’s work has addressed our national obsession with consumerism fueled by corporate advertising. Over the years, her art has raised questions such as “why do we find anorexic or close to anorexic models attractive?” “Why do we eat or drink food that is clearly toxic?” “Why is there still a lure to smoke cigarettes?” What then, prompted her to choose the Pink Panther as a subject? On a Hawaiian vacation she stayed at the Pink Palace Hotel. Everything was pink, this included the bathroom, the bed, towels, sheets, eye masks, carpeting, beach chairs, stationery, pancakes, and last, but not least, the Pink Panther on TV screens. Anyone would succumb to that type of immersion, but Bernhardt has managed to respond with humor, intelligence, and savvy finesse.
Katherine Bernhardt GOLD is on view at the Newmark Gallery at Art Omi till May 18. Go see the work of a powerful, painter, a virtuoso who owns the skill of past masters while embracing the power of now.
Art Omi is located at 1405 County Route 22, Ghent, New York and is open 7 days a week except national holidays.