Interview by Ryan Fish — Photography by Nicholas Peter Wilson
In conjunction with Beautiful Savage, Nick and I interviewed Amy Bernstein and photographed her in her studio. Below is the un-truncated version:
To get to Amy Bernstein’s studio in SE Portland’s industrial district, Nicholas Wilson and I slipped out of the rain into a nondescript freight door. The building housed three floors of studios occupied by artists and fashion designers, and when we arrived at Bernstein’s studio we found her at a wooden desk sketching works for an upcoming show at Nationale. When she’s not painting, Bernstein interviews fellow artists and reviews shows for local arts publications, giving her own work an aggressive awareness. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Bernstein’s works are at once deconstructed and subjective, depicting contemporary hieroglyphics on stark white space. The works offer her viewers a light, colorful composition on which to investigate a subversive emotional currency.
Marrow: You said that you take the canvas off the wall and put it on the ground in order to “break free from gravity’s effect on your painting.” This makes a lot of sense to me but it isn’t something I had ever thought about. It’s a physical change in the painting process that frees expression. Are there other such changes that you make in the studio? Do you think about things like access to certain colors or limitations imposed by the size of your canvas? Your own physical limitations
Amy Bernstein: So many of my decisions in the studio are about the physicality of what I am making. I am a very physical person, so much of my impetus of the way I make things has to do with the type of physical energy I am working with on any given day. In terms of limits I put on myself, this is something I think about and work with a lot more these days, but is still very hard for me to stick to. I like to get completely lost in the process of making, and there was a time when I believed that it was important for me to be as indulgent as possible in that space in order to truly experiment. Granted, there was a lot of failure involved in that process, and in the end, after working that way for quite some time, a hierarchy of what I valued visually surfaced. That is what I am trying to pay more attention to now.
In terms of color, I am definitely interested in new limits, as I began to realize that, as much as I love color, what I wanted it to do for the work was not happening when I didn’t pay close attention to it. I am a color junkie, and my highs can get out of hand at times, sending the work into the lands of infinite rainbows. While rainbows are important, they aren’t as dynamic as I need them to be, so I had to put myself on a color diet.
Regarding the size of the canvas, I often feel that the size dictates the character of a work. In the past, I have worked on a rather large canvas because when I was working on a scale that was on a 1:1 ratio with the world I lived in, I felt more comfortable and honest. As I said before, I am a very physical person, so to work on the scale of my own body felt very natural and correct. Yet for the most recent work on view at Nationale, I knew I was a bit confined by the space itself. I wanted to address that challenge by making works that held their own without relying on size. This also allowed me to focus more on the language they were using. Large works come at you with such force sometimes, subtracting that element turned out to be a very refreshing experience.
M: If you had to re-create this body of work, what would you do differently? Was there a specific painting that you made at the midpoint that affected you and informed the later portion of the work?
AB: Hmmm, this is a difficult question, because I see the body of work itself as a turning point more than any individual piece. . . but if I had to do anything differently, I think I would have probably experimented more with the color combinations and compositions that constitute the unease and oddity for which I am constantly searching.
M: You’re an accomplished art writer so I wonder what you think about how you fit into the art world, both locally and elsewhere. What are you focusing on that you don’t think anyone is paying enough attention to?
AB: The only way that I see anyone as actually fitting into the art world is by doing good work, in whatever form that may take. You contribute to culture by making culture, but the art world is an odd animal. There are groups of artists that usually hang out with each other, and then there are the entities and the powers that be that are concerned with making money and publicly deciding what is and isn’t important. How these things contribute to culture are very complicated. . . I don’t exactly know how I fit into the art world per se except as a cultural contributor. The writing aspect of my practice allows me to give feedback to the greater intellectual conversations freely and somewhat anonymously, which I enjoy very much.
Painting allows me to put my values and questions into a physical practice which I also enjoy. Locally, the art scene here in Portland is more supportive than, I dare say, anywhere else in the country, and I feel a gratitude to Portland for giving me opportunities that I am not certain I would have enjoyed had I lived in other cities. In terms of the art world on a broad scale, I do not know where I fit in. I think of myself as definitely tapping into an ideological and visual zeitgeist that I see happening in other cities but is still too nascent to define. There is so much being made in the world right now that it is overwhelming and hard to categorize. Yet something that I see changing now is the lack of criticality in creative discussions and publications and also the fact that things made everywhere have a direct link to things and ideas relevant to other areas of culture—basically I do not really believe in the separation or elitism of culture. I think if we are to be honest with ourselves, the greatest and most poignant ideas are reified in all areas of creative culture. We are all a part of and receptors and responders to the whole, and if your eyes and mind are open, this is quite evident.
M: What raw materials did you use to inspire these paintings? Did words and sounds resonate with you, or was it the specific techniques that drove things?
AB: When I was developing this body of work I was looked at a variety of different things that really influenced me, if not directly, then ideologically. A friend told me about the Ndebele houses of South Africa. Among these people, the women are responsible for painting the exteriors and interiors of these houses in order to communicate the aspirations of their lives and households, pay spiritual tributes to their ancestors, and claim their individual identities as artists in the community. When I saw these houses, I related very much to their color palette and geometries. These houses are very beautiful to me, and knowing about all of these women painting in the world in order to convey the state of their existence within their communities, freed me up as an artist. My education and my culture have given me such unlimited access to so many great ideas and artists that I often feel unable to answer to all of them as I should. Yet when I think of myself as one small artist working on my own pieces in this small place, it allows me to not necessarily need to answer to anyone else, only to myself-—and this is hard enough as it is! So yes, this work was definitely influenced by my learning about the Ndebele artists.
M: We are visiting your space just as the show is finishing up at Nationale, so what’s next? Do you feel your next idea brewing or are you planning any adventures?
AB: I am so excited by what happened in preparing for the show at Nationale that I plan on continuing it and pushing it. I want to spend the summer here in Portland, but I am planning on taking a road trip to explore the interior of this country. There is so much here in the people and the landscapes that I have yet to see. I know that my next body of work will be influenced by the colors and shapes of that experience.
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