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Cover Story: Hot Issue: Graphic Content Part III

Distel, Harper, Berkenblit and Stamper put on a show at the CAC

By Laura James · June 4th, 2007 · Cover Story
  Todd Oldham (right) with artist Charley Harper
Todd Oldham Studio

Todd Oldham (right) with artist Charley Harper

The third rotation of the Contemporary Arts Center's (CAC) exhibition, Graphic Content: Contemporary and Modern Art/Design, opens June 4 with special visits from exhibition designer Todd Oldham and new CAC Director Raphaela Platow.

The summer cycle of Graphic Content groups two Cincinnati-based modern designers -- Edie Harper and Maybelle Stamper -- with the contemporary painter Ellen Berkenblit. The work, at first, might seem incongruous to the rest of the cycles.

Stamper and Berkenblit easily step outside the boundaries of what's traditionally thought of as modern mid-century design. And while Harper's paintings fit that graphic, reduced mold, her photographs, also a part of the exhibition, augment a sense of atmospheric surrealism also true to modern art.

"This cycle is considerably different from the ones that came before and the ones that will come after it," says curator Matt Distel. "It's right in the middle. A pivot point. Which doesn't mean that the rest of the season will change."

A large part of the modernist movement in Cincinnati and elsewhere dealt with surrealism and photography -- often those two went hand-in-hand. Distel chose the middle of this ongoing exhibition to deal with the surrealistic and expressionistic tendencies in modern art.

"You'll see in (Stamper's) work the through lines of modernism and surrealism," Distel says. "Lyrical lines rather than the rigid ones in Noel (Martin)'s paintings. Her work is illustrative rather than reductive. A lot of times you'll see a surrealist figure in a modern context, a modernist background."

It's clear why Distel chose to pair contemporary artist Berkenblit with Stamper.

Berkenblit's painting is also looser and sketchier than that of most modernist masters.

"She has one figure," Distel says, "that she repeats in her painting. That one illustration, that figure, looks like it's from the 1940s or '50s."

But Berkenblit puts that modernist figure into a surreal landscape.

"It's more of a European history of cartoon," Distel says. "Kind of fucked up images like the girl and a giraffe," images which add a distinctively surreal feel to the work.

Berkenblit, who will attend the June 4 opening to participate in a lecture run by Oldham and Distel, echoes the curator's sentiment.

"I designed a fabric for (Oldham's) clothing line and also did some drawings of spiders that he translated into sequined appliqué on a gorgeous evening gown," Berkenblit says from her New York studio. "So I think that is how Todd sees the connection of my work with mid-century modernism. ... The allure for me of mid-century modernism lies in the comfort with which the idea of 'art' and the idea of 'illustration' (or furniture or fabric, etc.) can flow freely together. I find it very liberating."

Berkenblit says she was drawn to drawing and painting as a child by the everyday things around her.

"Cartoons, logos, comics, the way a ceramic serving dish had flowers painted on it, household paint," she lists. "Now I am still steeped in inspiration from the present and the everyday. Street signs, traffic lights, the city's hodgepodge and all its disheveled beauty."

Harper's work is much more modern in terms of design.

"She has that interest in illustration," Distel says. "In mark-making, in reductive images."

It almost seems, looking at the paintings of Stamper and Harper, that there's no real aesthetic connection. At least it seems that way until Distel puts Berkenblit between them.

"She's a contemporary hybrid (of Harper and Stamper)," Distel says. As opposed to being "pure modernist ... what's on the picture plane is what's on the picture plane (in Modernism)." But Berkenblit builds on that flatness, adding movement, expressionism and depth.

Since being selected for the third rotation of Graphic Content, Berkenblit has looked at Harper's and Stamper's work but only through reproductions that Oldham has showed her in New York.

"Maybe (Harper) is the oddball of the group," Distel says.

His comment makes me wonder about another difference in this cycle of Graphic Content: It's the first to include women and, in fact, includes only women. The thought is suddenly troubling -- a pivot point, Distel says: oddballs, expressionism, surrealism, a different show all around. A woman's show?

Has the CAC slugged all the women into one rotation for no real reason? Almost nothing turns me off more about an exhibition.

Distel calms me, though.

"No more of a reason than why the last cycle had three men," he says. "Each grouping needs to tell a piece of the (modernist) story. This one, as a whole, addresses a stronger leaning toward illustration and an effort to reconcile surrealist and modernist tendencies."

He spins me around to Harper's photographs. In them, a graphic presence is obvious -- lines are carved out in sidewalks and cityscapes like the lines in her paintings. But there's more there: atmosphere. Foggy black and white views of ordinary things turned suddenly mysterious.

Harper's photographs link the sum of her work with that of Stamper and Berkenblit.

"I think it's interesting that all three of us happen to be women," Berkenblit says, "and also share an affinity to a personal world that is seen though nostalgia -- especially Edie's -- and also inwards. I do think men and women have different takes on the world. It's a wonderful thing! In any case, I think Edie, Maybelle and my work fit together so beautifully that (our grouping) makes sense artistically."

The pivot point that Distel speaks of is obvious in the works collected in this cycle of Graphic Content. While all three artists speak to the idea of modernism, there's a new quality that emerges here.

"I'm a very messy painter compared to Ryan McGuiness and Dave Miko," Berkenblit says about the two previous contemporary artists in the CAC exhibition. But that messiness gives graphic work a lesson in expressionism and surrealism. The mix is destined to be amazing.

Join TODD OLDHAM, ELLEN BERKENBLIT, MATT DISTEL and Raphaela Platow for an introduction to graphics, Modernism and art in general at the Contemporary Arts Center at 6.30 p.m. June 4. This cycle of Graphic Content runs through Sept. 3.


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