"I'm Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?"
Canada proudly presents I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?, an exhibition of new paintings by Katherine Bernhardt. This show finds Bernhardt at her bravura best, continuing to mine the cultural gold of her 1980’s childhood: Ding Dong snack cakes, the Pink Panther, Garfield, E.T. and especially Bart Simpson. Bernhardt has made a typically bold choice, picking Bart mid-moon as her primary motif.
Despite the risqué subject matter, the paintings feature sumptuous expanses of unadulterated color. The double parabola of Bart’s yellow tush in “Seymore Butts” is ringed by Day-Glo pink spray paint and pools of washy purple, calling to mind the gauzy abstractions of Color Field painting. On the other hand, it's Bart’s butt!—as deliciously shocking now as it was on TV during the sunset of the Reagan administration. The transgressive tingle begs the question: is Bart’s naked (cartoon) derrière offensive? After all, male artists have devoted miles of canvas lingering on the erotic possibilities of butts. The tension between beauty, shock, terror and humor is never far from the surface in Bernhardt’s paintings. It’s as if she sees too much and her showing it all makes us uncomfortable. She has the power to grasp her inner sensations and make them visible, as well the ability to channel the constant churn of pop culture.
The secret of the paintings is that Bernhardt allows paint to do what paint does: puddle and swirl, cover and glow with transparency. The paintings display confidence over a range of sizes, from the intimacy of a small watercolor to the 120 x 248-inch tour de force “I can’t promise to try, but I’ll try to try”. By making the paintings face-up on the studio floor, gravity has left the canvases and cosmic weightlessness has been let in. The drawing is direct and to the point. Bernhardt isn’t seduced by virtuosity, nor does she mimic anyone else’s style. Her one-of-a-kind technique allows raw associations to tumble out of her spray can and brush with élan.
Then again, we return to her subject, Bart. An American archetype: a classic rebel without a cause, appealing in his roguishness and constantly at odds with authority. In the end, Bart is a good guy, loyal to friends and family. It might be stretching it to think of Bart as a stand-in for Bernhardt, but the thought of these similarly swashbuckling figures as compadres feels apt. Whether or not this is true, there is much to enjoy in the work, including a dizzying array of image-sparks that give Bernhardt the freedom and urgency to make her life and memories dazzlingly real.