On a recent visit to Tony Berlant’s studio two very poignant remarks stand out from our conversation that took place wandering through his studio surrounded by the body of work that is being exhibited at Nyehaus, and a series of very early works called The Girls that will be shown simultaneously at his gallery, LA Louver, in Los Angeles. First, when I mentioned the word jigsaw puzzle, there was a charming moment of embarrassment as he confessed he had never thought about nor did he have the temperament for jigsaw puzzles at any point in his career; and then the ludicrousness of the remark sank in. he certainly had the temperament, his work is painstakingly labor intensive. But as we talked more, however, I understood his aversion to the use of the word puzzle; he is so specific about the “erasing” specific details of the image with shape. Puzzle makers cuts have no relationship to the image. Once I digested his intent, I no longer could see these “marks” as puzzle pieces. The second poignant moment happened when I asked him to compress his career in to a symmetric history and discuss the transitions / connection between bodies of work that began in 1960. The consternation on his face revealed that I had put him on the spot. To me, the viewer, that had the privilege of objectivity, the path from the Girls, establishing his language of bold pop imagery and its paradoxical ability to embrace minimalism, to aquarium dioramas filled with mysterious surreal scenes of found objects hinting at a narrative, the houses some of which barred the viewer from entry other inviting them in to humorous scenes of women in cages or a lone shell, the monolithic object’s exterior covered in advertising images fractured in to biomorphic forms and adhered to the surface by the nails present themselves in his recent body of work; reads like a carefully choreographed path of styles and logic. And Berlant, when he gets over the initial anxiety of taking 50 years of work and compressing it in to 20 minutes of art historical references and subtle stylistic descriptions, speaks as fluidly and intuitively as his work.
Berlant’s works on gesso treated plywood. He mostly uses photographs that he has taken, blowing them up and inkjetting them on to the prepared plywood. Berlant then with surgeon like precision takes pieces of tin painted by the artist and tin that has been printed with advertising imagery; with a signature means of attaching the pieces with nails, the small head of the nails left visible as they trace the edge of the pieces. He does this much in the way Lichtenstein’s benday dots became his signature artifact. In this body of work, Berlant has become obsessed with an image of a goddess, extracted from Rorkshak interpretation of an image gleaned from spending day after day staring at the plywood floor of his studio. Berlant presents the clarity of this image as if he is showing me the narrative clarity of Boticelli’s Venus. Berlant is not crazy, quite the contrary; supremely lucid. He just has “artist eyes,” a singular way of viewing the world. These same eyes tell him to cover certain parts of the inkjetted surface with these pieces of tin, as if he has shaman like knowledge of the erogenous zones of the picture. He has turned subjectivity in to objectivity. His only hesitation, he explains, is his reticence to draw the covers over his goddess, obscuring her seductive powers. This ambivalent space / fight that Berlant has between an almost romantic attachment to subject / image and his rigorous formal side, (he for instance, goes to elaborate lengths to wrap the inkjet image around the edge of the canvas, having to hand paint the the photographic continuation to make the subtle point that these works are “objects” as well as paintings) is where the real mystery and power of the works comes from. I will leave alone an interpretation of the artist’s weaving the covers for the goddess from her own image.
This romantic attachment to subject, is more clearly, at least for the viewer, expressed in the second series of work that draws from photographic images Berlant took sitting at night, in the tree choked ravine of Chris Burden and Nancy Rubins’ property. Berlant took 45 minute exposures of the moon and starlight poking through the loosely knit blanket of trees. Berlant was left alone in the twilight, reflecting on whether the neighborhood mountain lion might come down for a visit. The resulting images loaded with the detail of a 45 minute exposure, prompts the nervous eye to look for movements or recognition of life in the shadows. Even the viewer’s audial sense feels on alert for the sound of a broken branch. Berlant, again, struggles with the restraint to obscure the seduction of the image with overlaying images, but it is this tension that keeps the picture’s surface undulating, breathing like a mountain lion.