7.5.17 — Reaching for You

Ellen Berkenblit makes you step back, only to wonder what you missed. You step back from big canvases, big colors, and plenty of black, at Anton Kern through July 6.

You step back from a horse rearing in profile in the darkness, lest it trample you, or an umbrella in a cage, lest it poke you in the face. You step back from a bulbous foot and ankle with a single toe, lest it kick you somewhere even more vulnerable. You step back from a hand plucking a flower, as Tincture of Musk, to avoid the smell. Besides, those archly curved fingers with their red nail polish could instead be reaching for you.

Berkenblit is always in your face, and the greater part of you might like it that way. You might even wish that she were reaching for you. She paints pleasures and temptations, with a small cast that boils down to just that horse and just that woman, as obvious projections of the artist. She means them to project a long way. You do not step back as you would for the majestic symmetry of an abstraction by Jackson Pollock, say, or the busy narrative of Paolo Veronese in the Renaissance, but rather for the comic energy of a pointy nose out a graphic novel. Just bear in mind that she may be laughing at you.

You may not find it so easy to laugh along with her. More often, the horse looks slightly down and slightly sad, but still larger the life. The woman appears at her most confident striding across and into the canvas, past still more flowers, wearing only a velvet ribbon around her neck. The horse faces an American flag with colors wildly at odds with reality, and the woman’s skin is a peculiar shade of violet. The colors could be unsettling the painting or you. Berkenblit works in layers and gestures, with a brush or palette knife. Those blacks may combine colors, bright colors may have warmer underpainting, and hard edges may dissolve halfway into shadow.

The comic-strip outlines and surfeit of flesh are heirs to Carroll Dunham, although with more attention to painting. They have just as much to do with the characters bordering on abstraction common to art right now, although never quite as slippery. They do not inhabit the anxious allegories of Dana Schutz or the enigmatic interiors of Patricia Treib. They may look to Henri Matisse for their large fields of color, but without the classicism. They are just too concerned for sensuality. Berkenblit may paint over charcoal or over calico, ever mindful of what she exposes or effaces.

When it comes to sex, you may miss the irony of Eric Fischl, the sheer madness of Carol Rama before him, or a more self-conscious feminism. Berkenblit can seem by comparison way too obvious and a little too self-involved. She is, though, always a painter and never quite what she seems. A title like I Don’t Object If You Call Collect could be rapping or indulgent. A title for the striding woman, V, could announce victory or just plain drawing. She really could be reaching for you.

Just upstairs, Nicole Eisenman puts flesh on the line as well—and with much the same comic crudity. Eisenman has made brutal free-standing sculpture, but she has a greater reputation for mask-like faces in paint. Here she works between the two, in wall reliefs and related works on paper. They run the gamut of expressions and assemblages. Yet their roots in pop culture and found imagery are hard to pin down. They exist for that tempting space in-between.

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