A Painter’s Belief in Painting

Michael Berryhill, “Happy Ending” (2020), oil on linen, 36 x 30 inches (Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein, all images courtesy of the artist and the Kate Werble Gallery, New York)

At a time when quirkiness often feels made up and a widespread attitude almost seems to insist that art be centered on its content, Michael Berryhill has developed a powerful, resilient, and important alternative. It begins by fusing a specific palette with an addition and subtraction process that allows the artist to work anything on the rough fabric of the canvas surface of the painting.

Something to do with Odilon Redon’s rich, ethereal color and Raoul Dufy’s heightened ambient light, Berryhill’s Day Glo palette seems to be as inspired by the past of painting as it is by the fluorescent artistry of computer screens. However, the shades and combinations he achieves are all his own, as is his technique of applying them.

Like the artists associated with Abstract Expressionism, many of whom developed personal techniques to apply their medium to the surface of the painting, Berryhill also works in a very special way that dissolves the boundaries between drawing and painting.

Unlike Willem de Kooning and others who enjoy drawing with a loaded brush, Berryhill uses a small brush and dry brush strokes to apply his pigments to a surface he’s scraped off, leaving ghostly shapes behind. Sometimes his method is akin to raking an oil pen over a rough surface, but he has far more control, nuance, and delicacy than suggests.

“Michael Berryhill: Solo Exhibition” in the Kate Werble Gallery, installation view (photo by Elisabeth Bernstein)

In addition to the dry-painted lines with which he conveys a contour or separates one area from another, Berryhill optically animates his pictures through combinations of odd, complementary color tones.

Berryhill is interested in the realm of perception, which includes legibility and illegibility, the crystalline and the fuzzy. What is the relationship between seeing and remembering? To what extent has our perception of the world been shaped by the culture or religion in which we grew up? Where does the boundary between the everyday and the unique begin to dissolve? What is shared and what remains private?

By raising these questions in his work, Berryhill shows his preoccupation with painting’s ability to be resourceful and lonely, rather than its ability to explore social interactions, be it interpersonal or public.

In his current exhibition Michael Berryhill: Solo Exhibition (September 24 – November 12, 2020) at the Kate Werble Gallery, temporarily moving from her Tribeca room to the second floor of a townhouse on 73rd Street between Madison and Park, the artist, The themes range from an oversized turquoise parrot grasping a brush with one claw and a circular palette with the other (“Painting Parrot”, 2020) to elusive forms in proscenium-like structures (“Halcyon” and “Amazing Place” , both 2020)) to works that lie exactly between abstraction and representation without completely slipping into one of them (the large, wonderfully confusing “Reservoir”, 2020). In addition to the seven paintings on display, ranging in size from 14 x 11 inches to 70 x 60 inches, Berryhill is showing three sculptures – the first time he has done this.

Michael Berryhill, “Painting Parrot” (2020), oil on canvas, 51 3/4 x 40 inches (Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein)

Sometimes I sense a conflict between its optimistic neon colors and its theme – a recurring motif is the parrot, known for its perfect imitation but not for its originality. More importantly, I felt a friction between his serious side and his self-deprecating humor. This friction is most eloquently expressed in “Painting Parrot”. Once the viewer takes in the parrot’s turquoise plumage, magenta beak, red eyes, and purple claws, as well as the brush and palette, they may notice the ambiguities that fill the rest of the painting.

What is the pink geometric plane behind the parrot? Is it a solid surface or a stream of light? Is it a vertical wall or a horizontal floor? Its ambiguity destabilizes our reading of the painting, which contributes to our exploration of its possible meanings.

What does it symbolically mean that Berryhill portrays the parrot as a painter, whose identity is inextricably linked with its ability to mimicry? Is it a comment on the pursuit of originality? Can mimicry be an expression of authenticity? Can it refer to a visionary artist copying his visions into a drawing or painting, as August Natterer or Forrest Bess claimed?

Michael Berryhill, “Painter” (2020), oil on canvas, 38 x 30 inches (photo by Elisabeth Bernstein)

Against this background, what should we do with the faded, ethereal atmosphere of “Painter” (2020)? A woman with a blue-tinged milky complexion can be seen in profile against a pink ground that has tripped over a previous blue layer that is peeking through. The worn surface is reminiscent of the passage of time, as if we were struck by a memory.

The painter wears a white blouse or a smock with puff sleeves. Her right hand applies a brush to the right edge of the actual canvas, the edge of which dwarfs the image within the painting. We can’t see what she’s seeing or what she’s working on. The world she lives in is literally and symbolically parallel to ours; we cannot enter it. This rejection suggests that painting, however public it may be, remains a private act.

The world “halcyon” can refer to a mythical bird that nested in the ocean and calmed the sea; an Asian or African kingfisher with light plumage; or a quiet, idyllic time from the past. In Berryhill’s painting “Halcyon” we see a long-necked bird that appears to be trapped in a box-like structure and the low tip of which prevents the bird from lifting its head. Berryhill painted a blue airplane around the structure, suggesting heaven and freedom. Does painting mean that you are limiting yourself to the picture or that you have made a conscious choice to work within the physical confines of a painting?

Does the enclosing structure also suggest a temporary sanctuary to the world? Berryhill’s enclosure doesn’t seem that sturdy to me, which is the point in my opinion. Painting is a fiction that the artist believes in.

This doesn’t mean it’s an escape from reality, a pure fantasy, at least in Berryhill’s case. Chaos and mortality still await us, as his painting of a large, red, grinning skull makes clear.

Michael Berryhill, “Amazing Place” (2020), oil on canvas, artist frame, 21 1/4 x 17 1/4 inches (Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein)

And what exactly is Berryhill’s belief? I think we get a reference to the Amazing Place painting, which measures 21¼ by 17¼ inches. It is the only work in the exhibition that is framed – a simple floating wooden frame by the artist.

The painting, which is mostly blue and orange, contains an elementary notation of head and torso in its center within the blue outline of an archway. The archway is surrounded by a field of deep orange, with a touch of red and stains of unpainted linen. Four blue brushstrokes shine from the right side of the arch across the orange zone and stop just before the edge.

Although largely abstract, “Amazing Place” reminded me of the various paintings of the Virgin of Guadalupe depicted in a cocoon-like aura with sharp rays of light. The ambiguity of the inner form in Berryhill’s composition, which can be read both as a figure and as a keyhole, underlines the artist’s sense of the metaphysical possibilities of painting without ever becoming stubborn.

Through this work, Berryhill imparts the conviction that painting – the thing itself, to use a term favored by the poet William Carlos Williams – is an “amazing place” where transformation and miracles can still take place.

“Michael Berryhill: Solo Exhibition” in the Kate Werble Gallery, installation view (photo by Elisabeth Bernstein)

In the mixed media “19 Millbrook Lane” (2020), one of the three sculptures in the exhibition, a flat red and white profile reminded me of a parrot’s beak, while the three rounded, painted and angled levels behind it unfold like a book or open like one Door. That it is titled after an address (as is the case with another sculpture, “5520 Pembroke”, 2020, both of which rest on faux-architectural pillars) suggests that Berryhill regards art as a physical place, a tangible place significant.

Berryhill’s strengths are diverse, not least his striving for something that cannot be immediately named or easily exploited. He further strengthens this pursuit by not fitting into one style and alternating between abstraction and figuration without conveying a loyalty to both. His search, which is different from that of others, seems to me to be a great and unique undertaking.

Michael Berryhill: The solo exhibition will continue until November 12th at the Kate Werble Gallery (136 East 73rd Street, 2nd floor, Upper East Side, Manhattan).

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