Chicago

Ellen Berkenblit, Lumivores, 2022, oil on linen, 76 × 114".

Ellen Berkenblit, Lumivores, 2022, oil on linen, 76 × 114".

Ellen Berkenblit

Pictured in unvarying profile, the same lithely painted goth girl with a kohl-rimmed eye, sour little mouth, and pointy nose made an appearance in ten of the thirteen paintings comprising Ellen Berkenblit’s show “Umberville.” Yet this was not an exhibition of portraits. In addition to the disaffected cartoon protagonist, the works on view repeated a limited lexicon of stock characters including various feline species and an angelic, golden-haired youth. Assorted props of obscure significance—a French horn, a gramophone horn, a streetlamp, lightbulbs, pink peonies, and bottles of phosphorescent liquid—were squeezed into the shallow space of the foreground, often crowding the figures.

The largest canvas in the exhibition, Lumivores, 2022, was also the most populated. The ashen flesh of the recurrent cartoon girl occupies the right half of the horizontal painting, while on the left a frontally oriented orange tiger stares out at the viewer with intense kelly-green eyes. As in all of the works in the show, the middle and background are treated with an energetic scumble of very dark tonal values. The effect can be understood as an existential nothingness, despite the confident and dynamic brushwork that floods the negative space between the various representational elements. A generic streetlamp fitted with a standard bulb sheds a barely detectable blue glow that illuminates nothing beyond its faceted volume. The figure’s fingers and thick thumb, complete with red nails, clench the cap end of a second blue lightbulb. A rhythm of circles and half circles—encompassing the two lightbulbs, the tiger’s eyes, the figure’s ear, and two abstracted peony buds clinging to the canvas’s edges—punctuate the composition. Line, too, is an elaborated formal vocabulary in Berkenblit’s oeuvre. Rendered in a range of styles from crisp graphic contours to arabesque flourishes, the line work lends structure and authority to paintings dispossessed of narrative content. Yet color, the bold and saturated dispersion of primary and secondary hues at work in this piece and in all the others in the exhibition, erupts with heat and curbs Berkenblit’s tendency toward conceptual tenebrosity.

Of the three paintings absent the pouty cartoon girl, the Little Leopard, 2022, was the most balanced in its observance of subject matter and painterly expression. A prowling cat, cropped and in profile, evokes Dr. Seuss and even Henri Rousseau, especially in its caricature snarl. There are no other elements in this small canvas to mitigate the rudimentary but ardent representation of the big cat, its many slapdash spots and speed of execution conveying something like a fundamental animality. Berkenblit’s aptitude for moving paint around is impressively manifest in the washy brown-and-green underpainting and in the slick black contours outlining the leopard’s elegant, minacious form. 

Chart of Lorraine, Umberville, and A Pink Stripe, all 2022, were three similar compositions that pair the ubiquitous female figure with Berkenblit’s recurring clip-art-like image of a cherubic blond child. The lipless goth character is adorned with subcultural paraphernalia including a choker necklace, racoon eye makeup, and an edgy haircut. In all three works, both personages direct their gaze beyond the picture plane. The older individual stares past her companion with blatant disaffection, while the child in contrast focuses curiously with raised eyebrows. The format of these paintings and others in the exhibition conformed, in a slyly Lichtensteinian maneuver, to that of the single panel in a comic strip, where the action transpires across successive frames. These are difficult works: The familiarity of their imagery seems to demand our interpretation, yet the task of finding social and cultural meaning in Berkenblit’s cryptic juxtapositions of hackneyed signs is continually thwarted by the painter’s refusal to stitch together recognizable tropes and motifs. Who are these young, discontented female figures? An army of unhappy babysitters? Such a pat identification is ultimately unsatisfying, yet navigating Berkenblit’s remarkable formal explorations tempers the all-too-human urge to grab onto a story line.