Ellen Berkenblit's Abstract Cartoons
Ellen Berkenblit melds fine art and pop culture with her colorful, gestural paintings of women and animals that resemble comic strip clippings. Her practice explores line in animated compositions, combining Abstract Expressionist traditions with cartoon characters of her own invention.
Berkenblit’s cast of characters reoccurs throughout her compositions—a bear, a horse, a mouse, and a girl, often in profile. The audience can track these figures between paintings, drawings, and prints; however, the narrative in each plane, and across a string of works, is left up to the viewer’s imagination. This phenomenon has much to do with Berkenblit’s mastery of line and color, providing escapes from figuration with swaths of lush abstraction. As celebrated painter Amy Sillman described in BOMB magazine, “…Her characters exist within an embrace of off-register painting gestures: blotches, patches, scumbles, wipe-outs. Positive and negative spaces interlap. Colors puff up, then go slack. Shapes spill inside other shapes and obscure them. Background vaporizes into foreground. Center spills against outline; inside destabilizes outside; past folds into future. This world issues from a place where memory and forgetting have taken hold of the body, a stuttering body that repeats and fractures. This is the beat of Berkenblit’s paintings, the syncopation of not-knowing, knowing, not-knowing.”
Large Stripe Ribbon, from the Zane Bennett Contemporary Art collection, follows this pattern by offering a cropped view of what could be a scene bustling with action. Colorfully accessorized with a pink ribbon, the chic protagonist’s adventure is unknown: where is our main character? Led by her wide-eyed gaze, is she in motion, or perhaps stopped in her tracks by a surprising sight? Who may she be with? And what may her styled look say about the context of the scene? The composition invites us into an untold story. Where do you think this imagery fits in a comic sequence?
Berkenblit received her BFA from Cooper Union in 1980. She had her first solo exhibition in 1984 and has since exhibited in solo shows at Anton Kern Gallery in New York, Michael Benevento in Los Angeles, TBA Gallery in Chicago, Suzanne Hilberry Gallery in Detroit, and Charim Klocker Gallery in Vienna, among others. Additionally, her work is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago,; Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum, and more. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014.