In the Dark of Space, A Light: Amy Bernstein & Patrick Kelly at Nationale, 2015

[Originally published under Noise & Color PDX]

Poised on the brink of limbo with a hint of visible tangibility, The Liminalists occupies an interstitial space that is equal parts fine polish and preparatory sketch. Amy Bernstein and Patrick Kelly work in an area between conceptual musings and visual language. Their processes are at once clear and occluded by the forms that result, and we catch a glimmer of the artist’s hand in a line or brushstroke that then turns back on itself to reference the whole composition. In this exhibition, both artists make the simple switch from white to black in a few keys works, and in so doing reveal a little more of their time-based toil and controlled chaos.

Amy Bernstein, Untitled, 2015. Photo: Nationale

Amy Bernstein’s paintings have all the makings of a sampler that has eschewed the nougat (the worst surprise in the box) in favor of a selection of fine morsels of painterly stroke and shape. These truffles (to just roll with a sudden windfall of candy metaphors) are lumpy and splotchy and stray wholeheartedly from repetitive gesture, but they stand solid on their white ground as they feed off of each other. And yet, the colorful stars of Bernstein’s compositions are nothing without their equally worked backing of brushy white. These are not collages on paper: the color content is as much a part of the success of these works as the backing which binds them. These are not bits of graphic nonsense floating on an empty screen, they are small studies in blending and brushwork being encroached upon on all sides by a textural blankness. Works likeWe’re Creatures of the Wind (2015) are filled with splatters and strokes, but they neatly layer on top of each other instead of combining into a murky whole. As a large purple ovoid edges out of frame in Vowel Sounds (2015), it separates itself from the other groupings and offers an illusion of two-dimensional objects floating in a three-dimensional space. This is a space without shadow that hints at a larger collection of linguistic proportions. Each shape is a piece of Bernstein’s vocabulary, and each composition is a treatise on form.

Patrick Kelly, Traverse B, 2015. Photo: Nationale

Using bit s of foamcore as guides to his meticulous repetitions, Patrick Kelly creates sumptuous swaths of graphite. Their liquid form betrays the labor of the artist’s hand, yet also helps in gathering the myriad marks into a solid plane. Prior works, akin to this exhibition’s Carbon Trace 24 (2015), bring emphasis to the distinction between clean paper and rippling graphite. The line between the unworked surface and the glistening content is clear: Kelly has had his hands on part of this, and has stayed well away from the rest. That dichotomy is tested, however, in his new works on black paper. The three pieces, including Traverse C (2015), muddy the view and bring a (nearly) all-over approach to the work. Peeking out from the teeming depths of each Spirographic swirl are clean paper edges only noticeable when the rest of the composition is glinting in the gallery lights. These bits serve in the same way as the white backdrops of the others by referencing the artist’s control over his medium, but at the same time letting the viewer know that at any time the graphite could surge forth from the page.

Both artists talk about the role of gravity and orientation in their work in The Liminalists. They try to buck the trend of the illusionistic space, and even the weighted space, of traditional compositions. In an interview with Nationale’s Gabi Lewton-Leopold, Bernstein notes, “Every time I work in a way that I exist in my body, with my feet on the floor and the work on the wall, I eventually start making the world around me. Things start to move to the bottom of the picture plane and all of a sudden, it’s like the real world, and that’s not what I want at all in this work.”Bernstein’s floating forms recall a photograph of particles at the crest of ascension, or astronaut objects in a weightless environment. We are so used to gravity’s pull on everything that our view of two-dimensional art is ordered around a weight dispersal. Too much at the top of the canvas seems heavy whereas a solid bottom seems right. Kelly notes in the same interview, “It’s interesting when Amy was talking about trying to rid yourself of gravity, because I’ve really tried to do that as far as keeping these images floating in space to almost feel weightless, outside of the fact that they also feel very heavy, very dense.”Works like his Carbon Trace 24 and Untitledhover like the thickest smoke clouds you’ve ever seen. There is something alien about the way they sit in the airless space of the picture plane, made even more strange by their perceived three-dimensionality afforded by the shifting light on graphite.

Amy Bernstein, We’re Creatures of the Wind, 2015. Photo: Jess N. Pierson

But where pieces like Kelly’s Untitled and Bernstein’s An Intellect’s Love hover, the new pieces with black backgrounds take us out of that space and create a more direct connection to the artist and their process. As the forms cross out of the frame and are cut off at the edges, as in Bernstein’s Vowel Sounds and Kelly’s Untitled II, we see a natural progression toward the expansion of the frame into a more private space that is most evident in Bernstein’s darkUntitled and Kelly’s Traverse B and Traverse C. These three pieces, while still controlled and connected to the greater body of work, seem thick, heavy and nearly chaotic. But this isn’t to say they are wrong in being so. Quite the contrary, these all-overs are perhaps the most liminal of the group. They are evidence of a more personal abstraction that is on its way to the formation of a visual language. Perhaps they are keys into the artists’ processes, or just explorations into the void. Instead of abstracting the universal and creating something open,The Liminalists grab onto a more personal understanding of conceptual mark-making and insist that you stay and chat for a while.


The Liminalists: Amy Bernstein & Patrick Kelly is at Nationale until December 4, 2015.

3360 SE Division
Open 12-6. Closed Tuesdays.

Patrick Kelly, Traverse, 2015. Photo: Jess N. Pierson