True Blue Mirror: Ellen Berkenblit and Sarah Braman
McEvoy Foundation for the Arts, San Francisco
Feb 8 - May 4, 2019
Can an artist’s oeuvre have a doppelgänger? Another body of work not exactly the same but intriguingly similar? A resemblance of colors, forms, materials, surfaces, by turns pleasingly uniform yet teasingly incongruent.
Ellen Berkenblit (a painter) and Sarah Braman (a sculptor) work in different mediums, yet their taste in certain vernacular materials, modern vocabularies, and a cheery palette belie singular artistic worldviews. For Berkenblit, an interior society populated by a recurring cast of tigers, birds, and witches is summoned through bold gestural brushstrokes. For Braman, whose sculptures conjure a vocabulary of historical Constructivism, the references are more manly: split logs, camper shells and domestic bric-a-brac fuse neatly with colored glass, suggesting elements of an outdoor stage set, yet one devoid of actors. Come to think of it, a stage set ideal for Berkenblit’s animated troupe.
True Blue Mirror, based on a title by Berkenblit yet easily applied to Braman’s glassy assemblages, stages an encounter between two artists whose bodies of work “reflect” one another, suggesting revelation and completion, yet also refraction and distortion: what might be “true” or “blue” for Berkenblit will not be the same for Braman. Yet what that title proclaims for both artists is a search for authentic illumination through the private act of art making.
A combination of elements is evident in Berkenblit’s lively canvasses, starting with an interest in animation—cartoons and comic strips of the early twentieth-century variety, featuring woodland creatures and a dark-haired damsel one surmises to be a facet of the artist’s own persona. Berkenblit’s figurative depictions have grown more abstract over time, allowing the social narrative between woman and bird, tiger and truck, to be carried increasingly by line and color: the emphatic actions of the characters—the urgent story-telling, the rapt listening, the confident striding—are amplified by brushstroke and color, incorporating even at times scraps of fabric. As in abstract painting of the classical avant-garde, a utopian attitude of purist formal communication is at play, asserting the determined directionality of line and the exaggerated presence of shape as purveyors of thought and feeling. Berkenblit’s tableaux “gab” and “interrogate” in much the same way Kandinsky’s landscapes “heave,” Vuillard’s interiors “whisper,” or Twombly’s scribbles “elegize.” In Berkenblit’s paintings, figure and ground emote together as one.
Braman’s work also calls on the past, a past of careworn objects now repurposed into sculpture, as well as certain art historical modes—namely, Constructivism, Minimalism, yet principally Realism. The realism is asserted through the use of chairs, books, blocks of wood, and other common objects where, as sculptural elements, they signal a domestic reality in the same way similar humble remnants convey “documentary” in Walker Evans’ photographs. Braman’s sculptures are “realistic” for the utilitarian objects they incorporate. Yet a transformation occurs as these objects are combined with other forms: multi-colored glass cubes, paint-sealed books, violet-soaked plywood. Like Berkenblit, Braman engages a purist formalism to address the social and personal—in this case, hinting at the body’s need for rest, comfort, feeding, as well as community, conversation, experience. Her sculptures have been described as “monuments to domesticity,” yet they do more. Through the addition of tinted glass, alluding to stained glass, they reach for something closer to the revelatory minimalism of Larry Bell, whose geometric, glass forms convey both rational space and boundless freedom. A Braman sculpture extends a polite invitation to take a seat and contemplate the sky.
As for commonality, a two-woman show will inevitably become a solo show, as the mind naturally attempts to bring disparate forms and expressions into focus as a single body of work. And who—to indulge speculation—might this Berkenblit-Braman artist be? Certainly, a bold colorist, a virtuoso fabricator, and a dramatist, armed with an equal appreciation for familiar components and divine sentiments, pleasantly droll yet stubbornly opaque. A personality not unlike the surface of a mirror, promising luminous corroboration but reflecting back something curiously other.
True Blue Mirror includes a selection of photographs chosen by the artists from the McEvoy Collection. Demonstrating a range of individual tastes and interests, the selection also reveals considerable overlap. More than a third of the fifteen works selected were chosen by both artists from a swath of several hundred.
— Kevin Moore, curator
Ellen Berkenblit (b. 1958) is a painter who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She studied painting at The Cooper Union and her work is in many museum collections, notably the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, the Aspen Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Her first film, Ellen Berkenblit: Lines Roar, was shown at the Drawing Center, New York, in 2018.
Sarah Braman (b. 1970) is a sculptor who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York, and Amherst, Massachusetts. She grew up in Tonawanda, New York, and attended the Tyler School of Art, Philadelphia, and the Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore. She had a solo exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2013, and her work Driving, sleeping, screwing, reading (included in the present exhibition) was featured at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, North Adams, in 2017.
Oil on calico
Courtesy the artist and Anton Kern, New York, and Susanne Vielmetter, Los Angeles
Driving, sleeping, screwing, reading, 2016
Truck cap, steel, aluminum, glass, rug, books, hand-dyed fabric, acrylic sticker, acrylic set paint
Courtesy the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York