Graphic or Novel?

John Haber
in New York City

Joyce Pensato, Katherine Bernhardt, and ©MURAKAMI

Is there a direct line from Austrian and German Expressionism to comic books? In the first half of 2008 one might easily think so. Both allow one to wear one's emotions on one's sleeve and to wonder how they got there. They link big brushwork to ready-made images. And who can refuse the pleasurable but unhealthy muddle of sex, mockery, and dread? It gives new meaning to the graphic in graphic novel.

Joyce Pensato unites both ends of the story, with dark drips over familiar cartoon faces. Katherine Bernhardt may seem closer to a much earlier form of modern art, with sharp, thick dabs of color over women strutting their stuff. However, she updates them for a New York scene in which the strut means something other than male desiring and disgust. It may even mean life. Katherine Bernhardt's Grey Sweater (Canada gallery, 2008)

Last and definitely least, Takashi Murakami comes at the end of the tale. His comic-book characters purport to stand for an imperiled civilization but mostly blow up an eight-year-old's dreams to museum scale.

One line or two?

Not that expressionism ever went away. It remains in the name Abstract Expressionism, long after critics like Clement Greenberg relegated "mere illustration" to the history books. It peeps out in goddesses by Willem de Kooning or Jack Tworkov. It assumes cartoon form with Philip Guston, and it appears in more than just figure painting as well. Explicit sex, big gestures, and readily graspable imagery underlie many of the trashy installations that fill Chelsea galleries. If some of the more obnoxious appeals to museum audiences have the simplicity of cartoons, they do not necessarily look like them.

Nor did cartoon imagery go away either. Francis Picabia and Stuart Davis did not propel Marvel Comics, but they do connect to Pop Art. Not that the fad for album-cover imagery necessarily means engaging emotions, as "expressionism" would seem to require. It can actually avoid them, in favor of high style. Outside of the movies or the madhouse, sometimes restless activity is playful and audacious, and sometimes it is just childish. With Mike Kelley, for one, it is both.

Dan Perjovschi hardly minds if one calls him audacious or just restless. He has taken MoMA's Projects series out of hiding and into the four-story atrium, from floor to ceiling. Not even Martin Puryear has taken on so directly the challenge of the site, and his doodles added up to the world's most maximal and ephemeral graphic novel. For a while that May, visitors could also watch him and his black Magic Marker at work—or play. Up close, it had little in the way of plot or content, but it was fun while it lasted.

More recently, Perjovschi has managed to hold himself to the scale of a gallery, which serves as his blackboard. Perjovschi's chalk drawing has an appealing restraint, too, after his bigger gestures. If Jennifer Bartlett in Rhapsody can thrive on the transition from a gallery's winding walls to the atrium, why not try the move in reverse? Besides, text like his can make anyone laugh after a long day in Chelsea. "400 galleries, 5 shows," "Mad in China," or "we have successfully exported our democracy" anyone?

Still, how simplistic can art as political cartoon get before it has to compete with the real thing? Nothing much beyond the scale of his ongoing, city-to-city project suggests a depth of political convictions or even a willingness to take artistic chances. The invocation of smokestacks—and hooded Klansmen that Guston would have identified with himself—could well make one wonder whether the Romanian artist knows America. Thankfully, other artists know how to unite a cartoon's poles of expression and ironic detachment. At least three are thinking largely in two dimensions, and they are thinking big.

All three leave it deliberately uncertain when the graphic becomes comic rather than darkly expressive. Murakami makes at best a token bow to serious subject matter. Pensato and Bernhardt do better, thanks to a native confidence that accepts comic relief as a matter of course. As Pensato puts it herself, it is not about fudging but erasure. For more context, an earlier review traces the revival of Expressionism to its adoption in America. It contrasts Georg Baselitz's resistance to narrative, Guston's comic disdain, and Julian Schnabel's face-off between a cultural inheritance and an imagination at risk.

Erasing Mickey

Joyce Pensato calls her latest show "The Eraser," but she could not have erased the slightest slip. She still paints in black and white, but now the more the merrier. Only a determined critic would dwell on the December darkness.

Pensato outlines faces as familiar as Mickey Mouse. They look just grotty enough for modern painting, just savvy enough to acknowledge the irony. Throw in spare enough to suggest art as sign system, obvious enough for the street cred of graffiti, and silly enough to make one laugh. At her former gallery, her bunny rabbit seemed a natural for Williamsburg's exaggerated rough edges and high style. Out there, even when an artist has visions of childhood, it means basic black. No wonder the characters cannot stop grinning.

Pensato's black and white take turns as figure and ground, but the blackness has spread and penetrated the white. Sometimes she paints over a silvery ground, so that black and white shine that much more. Does all that black figuration recall late Jackson Pollock, the overlapping planes of a Willem de Kooning abstraction, or Robert Motherwell in his Elegy to the Spanish Republic? Maybe, but relax. If one has to mention the 1950s, think of early acrylic paints, which artists back then generally found too runny for common use. Pensato's drips run down freely, almost begging for that eraser, and she enjoys every minute of it.

Her cartoon subject has darkened, too, simply by coming up to date. The cast now runs to The Simpsons and South Park, sometimes in close-ups that isolate the eyes. Traditionally, eyes serve as windows onto a portrait's psyche, and these figures have endured plenty—only starting with fine art. Still, they remain best of friends. The gallery calls them ominous, but I prefer to say stoical. Everything rolls off these guys, not unlike the drips.

The broad white curves indeed border on erasures, and Pensato's title makes me think of a phrase from Jacques Derrida, sous rature, usually translated as "under erasure." The French actually means something closer to "beneath effacement" or simply "crossed out," not unlike the ironic strikeouts in many a blog. Paul Chan adopts the device for his video of disaster at the New Museum, The 7 Lights. For Derrida, erasure allows thoughts to survive and multiply. Things persist, like it or not. Pensato's characters would still forgive Homer for messing up or trust Lucy with the football.

For all the updates, she has grown closer than ever to a previous generation. An Andy Warhol silkscreen or another Mickey, by Roy Lichtenstein, allowed smears to disturb the borrowed image. They took pleasure in pure painting and impure culture. And they, too, once seemed either lightweight or morbid. I prefer not to worry about it. Buy your own eraser.

Late for the party

Once again I am late to the party. With Katherine Bernhardt, I turned up early for the opening, but things still looked as if they had been going on a long time. Her women could have been sweeping me in—or telling me just to forget it. Either way, they insist on their authority and allure.

Okay, women do that to me sometimes, and Bernhardt has been painting hers now for almost ten years. Then again, maybe they, too, have shown up late for the party, just like Postmodernism. The repertoire of smears and drips goes back to Neo-Expressionism, and the celebrity aura that survives a bad hangover would make Warhol proud. One could call them a woman's response to the old Jean-Michel Basquiat attitude. A painting at the 2004 Armory Show indeed mimed a graffiti-covered wall. But do not dismiss this artist too fast, not by any means.

A little name-dropping seems only fitting. Bernhardt assigns all her paintings first names, like Chuck Close portraits that make the outsider feel guilty for not recognizing. Her women could be stars, hookers, fashionistas, or ordinary New York nightlife. Erect against dark backgrounds, they have the poise of a fashion spread and the scale of a traditional standing portrait. Three hang out together on a full wall, their limbs only slightly entangled.

You may not know them by name yourself, but this artist will make you want to join the party. These paintings neither celebrate nor satirize. The women have the usual trappings of sexuality—dark eyes, loose clothes, and even looser gestures. They know the model's trick of engaging the viewer while looking every so slightly away. A come-hither look is for suckers. But not even that accounts for their sex appeal.

Bernhardt adopts notorious male icons for her own use—feminist, postfeminist, or otherwise. In the process, she places them in a more contemporary idiom, and that, too, is part of their immediacy. They stare back, like a de Kooning Woman or the inhabitants of Picasso's brothel, but they do not stare the viewer down. They have the party atmosphere of Dana Schutz, but without the mysterious rituals and deadpan primitivism. Compared to an Expressionist's earth tones and pseudo-African masks, Bernhardt's raw colors belong to America rather than eternity. Paint slathered on these faces could pass for lipstick. This art is having way too much fun to make me altogether comfortable, but no doubt I simply showed up too late.

Little mister big

At the Brooklyn Museum, Takashi Murakami lays claim to nearly two floors, ninety objects, and more than eighteen thousand square feet. One can take it all in, though, more quickly than any retrospective in years, much less an exhibition of Asian American art. Hate museums? Too many memories of class trips to look at stuffy old art? Look no further than Eastern Parkway. This time, one pretty much gets the point halfway through the revolving doors.

Vinyl circles on the lobby floor introduce his relentlessly cheerful palette, wide eyes, and smiling faces that surely Andy Warhol would have hated. They form a path into the museum, which, smelling a blockbuster, for once suspends its policy of pay what you will. Murakami's version of the Yellow Brick Road has more colors than Dorothy's, welcomes you, makes the decisions for you, and pockets ten bucks along the way. Nearby, the Japanese artist's cartoon character takes on three dimensions. It has much the same colors, larger-than-life scale, and barrage of decoration—including another of his recurrent images, magic mushrooms. Smile!

Murakami, now based in New York, thinks consistently, and he thinks big. His show has so many objects only if one counts separately drawings and wallpaper that function much like a single installation, shelves at the bottom of the stairs with dozens of meaningless knickknacks, more vinyl on the stairwell, and a functioning Louis Vuitton shop directly above. It starts for real, however, with sculpture and a video in the ungainly fifth-floor rotunda, and it ends with his busiest paintings yet. Most build on the same mindless mushrooms and cartoon faces. The latter belong to a large-eared child named Mr. DOB, who can turn into a waif, a bad boy, or a cuddly bunny without changing all that much. The sculpture represents Mr. DOB's fantasy female counterpart, Miss Ko2, although one might as well call her Miss T'n'A.

The museum exaggerates in calling this a retrospective, when so much of Murakami's career dates from about five years starting in 1997. Evolution seems as irrelevant as it would to an episode of Loony Tunes. Is it a coincidence that my own visit took almost exactly thirty minutes, linger as I would over painting after painting? That includes commercial interruptions, such as the gift shop in the middle, for which the artist has designed the merchandise. Still, his variations on a trademark do grow brighter and funkier around 2002. Two paintings add the texture of rust and abrasion, as in Warhol's Oxidation series.

The museum cites Warhol as a point of comparison, although not necessarily a helpful one. The older artist brought a childlike innocence not just to icons of popular culture, but also to the knowledge of a disillusioned adult and to painting itself. Murakami uses the style of manga and anime to create uncomplicated images that belong to him alone, just as in the end he will peel off and carry away the wall paintings. He calls the retrospective "©MURAKAMI," with the explicit copyright and the marquee capital letters. I could not make myself understood when I asked the attractive shop attendants whether his luggage costs more than ordinary Louis Vuitton designs. Perhaps the question makes no sense to this version of art and fashion, but I did learn that his bags cost the same as they would at any of the designer's other stores, where presumably the museum does not take a cut.

On good days, Damien Hirst is the eternal eighteen-year-old—proud of his independence and awe-struck at his discovery of mortality—while the Chapman brothers are always pushing fourteen, unshakably righteous and obsessed with sex. Murakami's art rarely gets past age eight, as in the subject of his one painting with much text, Tan Bo Puking. Eyes may show unalloyed happiness or anxiety, but never any real cause for concern, and a mushroom may evoke a mushroom cloud, but never a devastated or political world. DOB reduces the Japanese for why, plus an obscure pun in Japanese on male lust, to something anyone in any market can understand, and it does not wait for an answer. Much as one might complain about the luxury gift shop, especially after plunking down for admission, it offers the one chastening adult reality. Where last year the suffering Brooklyn Museum cloyingly surveyed "Global Feminisms," now it has global infantilism.

BACK to John's arts home page

Joyce Pensato ran at Friedrich Petzel through February 2, 2008, Katherine Bernhardt at Canada through June 1, and Takashi Murakami (with or without the copyright) at The Brooklyn Museum through July 13. Dan Perjovschi appeared at The Museum of Modern Art through August 27, 2007, and then at Lombard-Freid through February 22, 2008.


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