Barbara Bernstein

San Angelo, VA | by November 21, 2009

Barbara Bern­stein is a res­i­dent fel­low at the VCCA in San Angelo, VA, and an adjunct pro­fes­sor of sculp­ture at RISD sev­eral days out of the week. Bar­bara works in a grand scale skewed-​​perspective, and highly elab­o­rate draw­ing mode that bor­rows from and inte­grates East­ern and West­ern tra­di­tions.
In her recent site-​​specific solo instal­la­tion at Hollins Uni­ver­sity, “Things are not what they seem, nor are they oth­er­wise” she used black tape and white foam­core to “draw” the his­toric Hollins cam­pus as a com­pelling 3-​​D trompe l’oeil environment.

In her cur­rent show, Pat­terns of Love and Beauty, at Riverviews Art­space, she inte­grates inte­rior and exte­rior scapes in an homage to her dying father. Bernstein’s work explores counter valances; sim­plic­ity and com­plex­ity, weight and light­ness, fore­ground and aft, still­ness and action. Speak­ing to me in her apart­ment work­space, amongst count­less marker draw­ings, pen­cils and paper col­lages she shares some of her processes.

DM-​​Can you give us a lit­tle back story into how your paint and ink draw­ings have evolved from two to three dimen­sion. What ini­ti­ated that direction?

BB-​​It really started with two sub­se­quent events. The first was look­ing at Jack­son Pollack’s “Autumn Rhythm” many years ago. I first saw “Autumn Rhythm” as a child of about ten. Grow­ing up in New York City I vis­ited muse­ums at an early age. The feel­ing of look­ing at that large can­vas was the aware­ness of being tremen­dously encom­passed. I came to find myself under­stand­ing that I what I really wanted was to be a par­tic­i­pant in a draw­ing instead of an observer. My wall-​​sized black and white draw­ings began to get thicker — often with encaus­tic — in my evolv­ing attempt to cre­ate an envi­ron­ment. But it was some­thing I couldn’t really afford. Receiv­ing the Pol­lack Kras­ner award in 2002 — was when I was finally able to afford the wall sized reams and rolls of beau­ti­ful, sturdy BFK paper that would allow me the lux­ury of work­ing on that encom­pass­ing effect.

DM-​​Pollack Kras­ner has come to so many artists’ res­cue! Was there a spe­cific thresh­old work for you before or after that, push­ing you out­wards into the gallery space and seiz­ing your objective?

While work­ing on a 9’x5’wide draw­ing with pri­mar­ily ver­ti­cal marks that was feel­ing unre­solved, I found a dis­carded rem­nant of long rub­ber cable on the street. It was the line I had been look­ing for. The pli­ant rub­ber cable became my line that reached through space — I attached it near the top of the draw­ing so that it arced out into the room, reflect­ing the drawing’s exist­ing marks to encom­pass the room and the viewer. A year or two after that piece I got the Pollack-​​Krasner. Really, I fell to my knees when I got the Pollack-​​Krasner phone call and cried.

DM-​​What sub­tle dis­cov­er­ies have you made by stay­ing purely with black and white?

BB-I’m still learn­ing from black and white. It was and is power, and mys­tery. I’m fas­ci­nated by what hap­pens to space when a sin­gle mark is intro­duced. My some­what lim­ited under­stand­ing of Japan­ese aes­thet­ics has par­tic­u­larly led me to appre­ci­ate the mys­tery of the space in between.

DM-​​Do you see this hap­pen­ing in the stan­dard terms of neg­a­tives and positives?

BB-​​Negative space isn’t, it has pres­ence and weight. The mutual depen­dency of black and white is for me — pres­ence and pres­ence. They co-​​create each other, like the inside and the out­side of a teacup. I have learned that in sim­plic­ity whole worlds are revealed. That is a les­son found in the study of Asian art has been par­tic­u­larly impact­ful. In high school I encoun­tered a Zen gar­den at the Hunt­ing­ton Gar­dens in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. I remem­ber the pal­pa­ble shift being in that space, a simul­ta­ne­ous qui­etude and

DM– And do you see a rela­tion­ship between the Zen aes­thetic and Pollack’s Autumn Rhythm?

BB-​​Pollack offers a dif­fer­ent kind of silence, it is instead the sit­u­a­tion of being awed into silence. The brain must stop talking.

DM-You’ve just closed your Hollins instal­la­tion on the his­tory of the cam­pus and have one going on now at Riverviews.What do you have com­ing up on the hori­zon that you are work­ing towards?

BB-​​Two com­ing up…a solo instal­la­tion in spring of 2010 in the Bab­cock Gallery at Sweet Briar Col­lege. And, as a result of the Riverviews show, the Lynch­burg Neigh­bor­hood Devel­op­ment Foun­da­tion offered me an old cor­ner ser­vice sta­tion — con­ve­niently already painted black and white! I will begin next week draw­ing on its 9′ plate glass windows.

DM-​​It seems that many of your recent instal­la­tions are deal­ing with selec­tive land­scape, the process of empha­siz­ing extant sym­bolic land­scape fea­tures, while omit­ting oth­ers, on behalf of emo­tional impact and spa­tial silence. Would you com­ment on that?

BB-​​Perhaps it was because of being born in New York or despite it, the land­scape and par­tic­u­lar trees offer a qui­etude and expan­sive­ness that is com­fort­ing to me, engag­ing and mys­te­ri­ous in their move­ment and pres­ence. This holds true for me whether its images are from East­ern or West­ern art or sim­ply from being in the woods. DeKoon­ing talked about “glimpses” and being a “shift­ing glimpser”. I like the idea of hold­ing fast and let­ting go simultaneously.

DM-​​Tell me about your res­i­dency at the VCCA. How did that come about for
you and your hus­band? And how has that expe­ri­ence impacted the devel­op­ment
of your ideas?

My hus­band, David Gar­ratt, and I were both VCCA fel­lows in late in 2007. At that time a num­ber of other fel­lows asked us to become the Res­i­dent Artists. It is essen­tially an unpaid staff posi­tion. In exchange for hous­ing in this inspir­ing place my hus­band works on the build­ing and grounds, and I work in the kitchen. We are on call 24/​7 as first respon­ders. Unlike the res­i­dent fel­lows who come there for seam­less time with their work. I work in com­po­nents of time around my duties. It has changed how I work, I bal­ance my hours and occa­sion­ally my media. I often do col­lages to take me to a more flex­i­ble, fluid almost friv­o­lous place. If I just can say…fun.

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