New York

Michael Bergt

Midtown Payson Galleries

Michael Bergt’s multifaceted exhibition—panels of egg tempera on gesso, large bronzes, a room full of etchings—aptly demonstrated his enormous technical proficiency. Everything in it looked great from the far side of the room. The work was animated, colorful, highly polished. You immediately sensed its possibilities, and wanted to like it.

Bergt’s paintings have such an unearthly beauty—the details and skyscapes of Northern Renaissance altarpieces, lovely colors, odd architectural and structural details—that they seem to promise a new vision, some strange conjunction of social realism and Renaissance painterly technique. It’s no coincidence that the catalogue essay is written by Paul Cadmus, or that a gorgeous small painting by Isabel Bishop hung in the next room. Bergt seems well in line with a certain New York tradition that will always have a following. In fact, given Bergt’s talent, figuration seems poised for a comeback.

Or does it? Bergt is talented, but everything is stated so directly, so seriously here that the artist’s vision finally seems unequal to his technique. These works depict, for example, five men in a boat tearing it apart in an effort to build an observation platform; a man stuck atop a tree in his effort to get “out of the woods”; Sisyphus precariously napping upon his rock, halfway up the mountain. It’s all rather heavy-handed. The mystery of images is never allowed to develop in these very schematic works. After all, even in Breugel’s work, the picture eventually runs away with itself: a dog craps quietly in a corner, a baby spills her milk. Nothing of the sort is happening here.

Bergt’s forced narratives—tableaux that ponder the plight of contemporary humanity, often accompanied by some obvious “twist of phrase” inscribed on the frame—are the least interesting thing about these paintings. With their heavy-handed symbolism and one-dimensional commentary on human nature, these works quickly reveal themselves to be surprisingly uninspired.

Justin Spring