Amy Bernstein and Patrick Kelly reflect on their work and current exhibition, The Liminalists, now on view at Nationale through December 4.
Gabi Lewton-Leopold: I wanted to first get a little background on how you two know each other if you had ever thought of combining your work in this way?
Patrick Kelly: We met working at Stumptown, but we never really worked together here in Portland. I remember hearing that Amy was an artist, and I don’t even know if I had seen any of your work. I feel like I had, but I just remember various times we’d meet up at other events and have small conversations. I remember that when I started making these kind of works, Amy was one of the people I tracked down to see them, she and a couple of other people. I saw these particular individuals almost as points of validation: like, if these people approve, then I’ll keep pushing this. I don’t know if I really ever thought before about putting our work together.
Amy Bernstein: I don’t think we ever thought about working together, but the coolest result of this exhibit has been all of our conversations about how and why our work does work together. Just getting to work with Patrick has been such an honor for me; we’ve been colleagues and friends for such a long time. Most of our conversations before were sort of casual shoptalk, just shooting the shit, you know “what’ve you got going on? What are you thinking about?” Pretty classic stuff but not exactly “let’s collaborate” or “let’s see what from having our works exist in the same space.”
GLL: You did studio visits?
PK: Yeah, leading up to the show. It was funny; she and I had been sort of working respectively, for quite a while, developing these bodies of work. In a way these conversations we were having, it felt like they should have already happened, or had been waiting to happen for a long time, and this show finally realized them. Sometimes it feels like you need something to bring those conversations to light.
GLL: That leads to another question: you both have these distinct bodies of work, how did they develop?
PK: Many years ago when I started working on these drawings, the initial starting point was a point of frustration, of trying to build and design these horrible sculptures that just didn’t work. I was trying to force and mash these disparate materials together.
GLL: What were they made out of?
PK: A lot of it was black plastic, rope, and earth. It was that of creating a movement or traction of earth, of earth being pushed around. It was a horrible process. When I tried to redesign them, I started drawing them with pencil to plan out what was going to happen. Then I realized I was getting a lot more of a response, actually physically drawing these ideas—capturing movement with a pencil.
GLL: And when did you start using the template, or what do you call it?
PK: It’s been called a template, a jig, a guide, so many different things, which is really funny. I’ve never really given it a name. It’s not necessarily a very precious thing, so I never really thought of it as having a name. They are shapes that have been designed from quick gestural sketches and then cut out from foam core. The contour of the shapes are then traced repeatedly with pencil as I shift and rotate it minutely across a page.
GLL: But each piece uses a different one?
PK: Oh yea, definitely, and there are multiple ones in each piece.
AB: I think that the similarities of the way in which our work developed, which is maybe always the way it is when you are making work for a long time, is coming to a point when you realize that the process itself is problematic. I used to work on pieces for such long periods of time that they would become buried under other pieces. The work couldn’t be what it wanted to be. I think about language a lot, and writing, and the language of painting. I think about the visual language and trying to make your own. Making a language can take a very long time. It isn’t this way for everyone. But for me, I was putting it all in the same place rather than letting the words, or the symbols stand by themselves, so all this white space started to creep in so that these kind of quantifiers could have a space to exist. They needed it, and they responded to it, and then they could talk to each other in this space, so that’s how these kind of works developed. I think that oil paint can do anything, it’s such an amazing recorder of time, or of a moment. And for the surface to be incredibly smooth, it becomes an even better recorder.
GLL: You both talk about time, and there is something very time based about both bodies of work. There’s a feeling of accumulation and process but in different ways.
PK: Yes, even when I was initially beginning these pieces, the idea of how much time you’d dedicate to something cropped up; at that point, I felt it was really a problem for me because I felt like I didn’t have an understanding of what that would mean. When I started making these works, that was a part of the challenge because they are so time consuming: how much time could I devote to this? This was not just physical time but also a certain mental space. How much could I devote of myself to make this work? I really wanted to push myself to keep testing that idea.
GLL: This brings me to a question about the title of the show and the idea of the Liminalists as a reference to the creative process. It makes me think of the ongoing debate about when and where creative impulses happen. One camp argues that it’s about time dedication and hard work, while the other side says it’s more mysterious than that and that it often comes from outside of the self. Thinking about the Liminalists and your studio practices, how do you feel about those two philosophies?
PK: I think we both might be from the camp of work and dedication (laughs).
AB: I think it’s both. You need the time to spend sitting and thinking, to get to the place in your brain where these things live, where the need is to make them. And you need this in tandem with the actual hands-on making.
PK: I also think it is a little of both, and it’s ambiguous to say which one weighs more. Sometimes the physical work isn’t happening yet, because you are still looking for inspiration, but once you find it, the mind quiets down and you can really devote a lot of time to that work, to the physical craft. But yea, I think it does sort of exist in this ambiguous state and when you are an artist, you can’t really define when one stops and when one begins.
AB: I can’t get there only in my mind, as much as I would like to, as much as I’ve tried. I’d love to get there in my mind and see a piece and just make it, but it never works that way for me. I have to make something and there’s going to be all these other things that happen in the making of the thing that I can’t control. It’s taken my whole life to let go of wanting that control.
In terms of the title itself of the show, I think that part of it is a play on words, in referencing art history and the Minimalists. But the idea of liminality itself has to do with the place between language and thought. That impetus is also where making comes from, and so I think that’s what we were thinking about a lot.
PK: A lot of conversations were that of, if you strip away language, what is it that you are still communicating? You are kind of lost in that. Each time we venture into a new piece, we are at that beginning state.
GLL: Have you always both worked in abstraction, or is that something you came to later?
PK: No, further back in my life I was a very representational painter, highly realistic, lots of detail. I would say this sort of abstraction is a recent thing in the span of my life. But it’s interesting; this is one of those bodies work that developed outside of the way you have been trained. Like, ok you’ve gone through all this school and finished graduate school and struggled for several years, not knowing what to make because you are finally removed from the community from where I started. It became a body of work that really came from myself, from myself searching. It was void of influence, or at least of a direct influence of an immediate community.
AB: I was a figurative painter when I started school. but at the same time, I always think that all painting is the same.
PK: Well, it really is. I would agree with that, it really is all the same.
GLL: How do you see that?
PK: Well, the materials are the same—it’s still paint. I think that the painterly strokes that Amy works with and communicates with are the same things you would use to communicate the idea of a rendered space or a three dimensional form. Which is funny because in those arenas it’s almost like a visual trick. You can look at a painting of a landscape, for example, and think to yourself: oh that tree looks like a three dimensional form, but it doesn’t really have the feeling of a three dimensional form, and the color next to it sets it back in a space that looks three dimensional, but doesn’t necessarily feel like it. It is essentially, an abstracted three dimensional space. It’s all still the same language.
GLL: Yes, but do you think that maybe these abstract works are more open in a sense? In terms of that visual language, you are allowing for more interpretations and those kind things that come along with abstraction versus giving someone a rendered space or form.
AB: I think people rest on the things that they can recognize like a figure or a room, and maybe in this sense, they can become maybe a little less open because they aren’t always looking at the paint as much. And of course, these created spaces are loaded, psychologically and emotionally in all kinds of ways, as in the ways we relate with any depiction of our world: I know what it feels like to hold my body like that, or stand in a room, or lie next to my lover, or see a bowl of fruit lit like that, etc. Or maybe I never saw it before and now you are showing it to me (but this is part of what art does, right?) But honestly, if you think about Vermeer or even Ralph Pugay, a fantastic artist that works here in town, those are psychological spaces that those artists create with figures. The paint is part of it too, but my work is different in that way. But when I think about Frank Auerbach, or Manet, or Alice Neel, all those painters that use this juicy, psychologically charged medium to convey emotion, I think it’s about the way that they use paint more so than...
PK: ...than what they’re rendering.
AB: Yea, and that’s what they are conveying more than anything, and I feel that I’m doing , or trying to do, something more like that.
PK: If you look at the history of painting, it has always been about the application of paint. That’s the thing that set successors apart from the people that came before them. Certainly, certain subject matter has been jarring for what they are, but movements in painting are always based on the application of paint.
GLL: Amy, we spoke before about how you often work on the ground to get rid of the hierarchy of shapes and spaces. So, speaking of abstraction, my question is, how is orientation important to you in the final work?
AB: I do work a lot on the ground because I don’t want the work to be affected by gravity. But, I think somehow these works still got a little affected.
PK: What exactly do you mean by being affected by gravity?
AB: 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. So, I have to work on the floor because gravity always seeps in. I don’t want to make the physical world in my painting, so I have to work on the floor.
GLL: So, you don’t want that horizon line...
AB: Exactly, well, not really a horizon line, but the way things are weighted, a top and a bottom, a right and wrong, an up and down. Even when I look at the work and make a decision while the work is on the wall, gravity happens again and confounds me. I don’t want my characters to be affected by those rules. Gravity is so inescapable, it turns out!
PK: It probably is like one of the most inescapable things!
AB: But you’d think in my painting it doesn’t have to exist, but it does, it gets in there. I have had people turn my paintings different ways. I think of them as being oriented a certain way, because for me they do something for me that way. I want to not care if it’s oriented in a different way, but I probably do.
PK: Yea, you probably do.
AB: Yea, I do. I read this wonderful idea that I want to take on as my own but I can’t because I’m just not being honest. You know there was that awesome aboriginal show over the summer (No Boundaries: Aboriginal Australian Contemporary Abstract Painting, presented by PICA) and those artists were like, “put this piece on the floor,” because the way that they orient space is just so fantastic, and they don’t cater or work in any of our western pictorial constructs of making a landscape to explain your experience at all, which I thought was the most fantastic thing in the world and which I wanted to do so badly. But honestly, I know someone who owns one of my paintings and has turned it a different way and every time I walk in the room I’m like “ehhh...that’s not right.” But, you put it in the world and it’s not yours anymore.
GLL: And Patrick, with your work you are definitely working on the wall.
PK: I am, yea.
GLL: Physically, it would probably be difficult to work on the floor.
PK: It kind of would be, but honestly when I’m making these too, I am kind of twisting and bending so many different directions. It’s really kind of strange. Sometimes if I find my body in a stressful situation all of a sudden, I’ll switch to the other side and find another position. Once a work is completed, I’ve always enjoyed the fact that there is not one fixed spot in which to view it, for the fact that under certain amounts of natural light affecting it’s constantly changing.
GLL: Which brings us back to the idea of time.
GLL: But in terms of orientation, you know from the beginning how a piece will be placed on the wall?
PK: Yea, I don’t ever really turn the page when I’m working. I haven’t really gotten to that point because I don’t know the reason why to do that, other than just to do that. Usually, I orient a page and say this is how I’m going to work, in this format. 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.
GLL: And these newer pieces on black paper, almost feel like a piece of a larger one or a zooming in.
PK: Yes, somewhat, getting a little bit closer in. Maybe a little more terrestrial. The black paper was really started as more of a curious thing of seeing what could happen.
GLL: This brings me to a question about Amy’s latest painting, with the black background, what are your thoughts on that newest work?
AB: I think after awhile you work in a certain way for a long time, I think of people like Morandi who painted still lifes his whole life and they are just so sublime, so fantastic, they hold something that is so otherworldly. This time that we are in right now is so fast, which I think is hard sometimes for making art because developing language is a slow, slow thing. I think I had the impulse, I need to not work on this white space because it is limiting me, but then I think about people like Morandi, and the fact that I haven’t even begun to even touch the surface of what could possibly be in this white space, in this sensitive void record, but I wanted to make something that filled the hole—and so I filled white with black.
GLL: Do you think it’s somewhere you’ll keep going?
AB: I don’t know, I’m not really good at knowing. I kept thinking about this the whole time making this work, that I just can’t get there in my mind. I can’t do it in my mind, I have to make the thing. It’s the only way to work toward where it will go, and I’m absolutely positive it’s influenced by all my ideas and thoughts about the world, but I have to make the thing to find out. Other people don’t work that way; they have a complete concept. But I don’t entirely believe that either. I don’t entirely believe in a watertight concept. I don’t think that works.
PK: I don’t know either, it’s hard to judge if that really is happening that way or not for some people.
AB: I have a sneaking suspicion though that with anyone who is making anything, that the transformation something goes through while it’s being made is probably pretty drastic. And then the end product holds so much more than anyone ever intended, especially if it’s a powerful piece of work.
GLL: The idea of darkness as a meaningful space, or a political space, has come up in a few of these artist interviews. I started thinking about your work, Patrick, and wondering if you think about darkness, and if so, what does that mean for you?
PK: Now, I don’t really think so much about the idea of darkness. Originally when I was conceptualizing these I was thinking about darkness and the void that exists there. Part of it is that staring into the abyss or staring into shadows of something that is void of light, like light of this physical world. What happens as you start staring into a void is that it becomes a reflection of yourself. You start looking at a picture plane that is not existing here, but feels real and you start creating imagery, creating shapes, you almost start creating light that is going to exist there. I feel that that part, where you get to staring, is actually pretty critical for us as humans, especially for our entire development from where we’ve started from to where we are going. There’s a part of me that feels it’s very necessary to have that, to have that bit of darkness. I think it has to be there.
AB: Which I think also goes back to the title of the show, you know. The liminal space is a dark one.
PK: It is definitely. In a way, those dark spaces are the places where you have to create what exists there because maybe there is nothing there at all, but you can’t tell.
GLL: There are many conversations going on between the two bodies of work, but the one thing that really stands out is the fact that both bodies give us that time and space, and it feels really generous. It’s work that the more time you spend with it, it keeps changing, keeps giving more.
PK: I definitely want people to consider it that way, because it is such a long journey for myself, moving physically from one piece to the next. People can’t be there with me while I’m making the work; they can’t be in that mental space, but hopefully the images encourage an experience that opens them up to these ideas.
AB: That is definitely the goal. As someone who feels that way about the work that I look at, you know, that it’s work I feel like I will look at for my entire life, that would be amazing. That’s like, my life’s goal for my work, what I would want, something someone would want to come back to. That would be amazing.
Post-interview follow-up question with May Barruel (Nationale owner/director)
GLL: How did you arrive at the idea of pairing Amy and Patrick's work?
May Barruel: It was one of those moments when I was laying in bed, either had just woken up or couldn't sleep, and I had a vision of their work being paired together. I've always been drawn to how sparse both of their work is, how minimal and yet intense, and I wanted to put that vision into reality in a gallery setting. As different as Amy's bright colors and Patrick's blacks and greys can be, I had a sense that their work also had a lot in common. I was attracted to both the stark contrast, and the similarities of their work, and wanted to see where that conversation could take us visually.
Once we started planning for the exhibition, I knew it would all come together because of their shared enthusiasm and dedicated studio practice. From the start, I always envisioned that Amy's and Patrick's pieces would be paired together in the gallery, for the public to see that conversation, as opposed to grouping each of their work in two different areas. I couldn't be happier with how the show turned out. It has infused the space with a sense of both calm and euphoria.