Reaching for You

John Haber
in New York City

Ellen Berkenblit and Heidi Hahn

Ellen Berkenblit brings her defiance to women, horses, and color fields. If you are reaching out to art, she is reaching out to you. Heidi Hahn may seem instead to be lamenting you, and flatness might describe her mood as well as her fields of color. Yet she, too, insists that women define their public and private image.

Horses or women?

Ellen Berkenblit makes you step back, only to wonder what you missed. You step back from big canvases, big colors, and plenty of black. 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. Heidi Hahn's The Future Is Elsewhere (If It Breaks Your Heart) (Jack Hanley gallery, 2017)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.

Here, now, and elsewhere

Heidi Hahn has seen better days, but it is hard to say when. Meantime, her women just do the best they can. They read, check the phone yet again, or even paint. They hang out together without paying one another the least attention, as roommates do by necessity—especially those with smart phones. They try to get some rest or to get off the floor, beneath a clock that is right at least twice a day. They take insistent walks even in the rain.

They seem, in short, not terribly good at taking care of themselves, but who knows? The rain seems to miss them entirely, even if they cannot manage an umbrella. It could interfere with their determined stride. Sometimes the sun comes out at that, and the showers bring a flower, just as in the proverbs and promises. It is a lone and rather schematic flower, much like the lone and schematic women, and the walker acknowledges it no more than the cloud, but why should she? Hahn has looked inward to discover both.

She, too, is just going about her business whatever her mood. She calls the series The Future Is Elsewhere (If It Breaks Your Heart), but she sticks to the here and now. The title sticks to the vernacular as well, with the deeply felt illogic of many a song. Hahn's past shows have spoken of sadness, uncertain love, and looking to herself for raw experience, with what could pass for still more song titles. They have also had swirling colors and crowds out of a nightmare or dark ritual. Here she sets aside the otherworldly and the overstatement in search of the personal and the everyday.

She does so, though, with anything but everyday colors. Her silhouettes run to deep pinks and purples, face down or in profiles that flatten them all the more. She also hides their faces, with a loss of individuality that could stand for generalization or pain. The style is duly expressive, a bit like German Expressionism, but closer still to the passion of Paul Gauguin in Brittany. He, too, sought the future and an elsewhere, and he, too, had mixed feelings about the female body. Like Hahn, he found it ever so sensual but also something of a burden.

It shows in his fields of color. Their flattening can make them iconic or disembodied. (Historians have looked to their "primitivism" for a greater sensuality, but also for a French Catholic education and a revulsion at the flesh.) The urgent questions also appear in his most epic painting after his move to Tahiti: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Its many women could represent the course of a single lifetime, much as Hahn's social gatherings might be a gathering of one.

Her fields of color bring the work alive, just as for him, but with a subtle difference. Gauguin sometimes ironed his oils to flatten them further, but Hahn is not hiding her textures and her brushwork. (Then again, could Gauguin's ironing create scars like these?) She also leaves in place the thickening from paint drops, to lend her forms their structure and fluidity. Hahn leaves their clothes on as well. They can get sentimental, like many a pop song, but she owns them and owns up.

BACK to John's arts home page

jhaber@haberarts.com

Ellen Berkenblit and Nicole Eisenman ran at Anton Kern through July 6, 2017, Heidi Hahn at Jack Hanley through November 12.

 

Browse or Search by artist or critic Browse by period in art's histories Browse by postmodern ideas Check out what's NEW Some of my own favorites Museums, galleries, and other resources online Who is Haberarts? Return HOME