Katherine Bernhardt

The cover of Katherine Bernhardt

IN THE CLASSIC American game show Concentration, contestants vied to clear matching tiles from a board, revealing a larger rebus puzzle they had to decipher in order to secure a win. A new monograph on Katherine Bernhardt serves up a similar play of pictograms. Her pattern paintings offer exuberant blooms of iconography, with titles that conduct a rebus-like arithmetic: Couscous + Cigarettes + Toilet Paper + TVs or Key Boards + Soccer Balls + Avocado + Capri Sun + Headphones. And yet there are no riddles to be solved: The artist’s raucous compositions read more like butt-dialed emojigrams. While this feels nothing if not contemporary, Bernhardt’s lexicon indulges a pronounced nostalgia for the Day-Glo disposables of the late 1980s and early ’90s—curly-corded telephones, Sharpies, Rubik’s Cubes, ChapStick tubes, Pac-Man, Papa Smurf, smiley faces, and the serrated pate of Lisa Simpson—all rendered with the cheery vacancy of an Oriental Trading catalogue.

Stretching up to ten feet tall and twenty feet wide, Bernhardt’s paintings are immersive experiences. They’re executed fast and loose with spray paint and acrylics that have been watered down to near translucence, so they pool and drip along the surface. Her rambunctious palette recalls the specialty crayons from the 120-count Crayola box, which had shades like “razzle dazzle rose,” “screamin’ green,” and “atomic tangerine” that have since been relegated to Trapper Keeper knockoffs and novelty condoms. In the Gumby-colored canvas Salsa Music + Plantain Chips + TWA (Going to Puerto Rico), 2013, a fleet of six white airplanes swoop through a field of black stereo speakers and button-like banana chips. Tacos + Money, 2013, sees a swarm of vermilion-rimmed hard-shell tacos take to the skies alongside two-tone lollipops and golden dollar signs. A separate series centers on the Pink Panther, poured like Pepto-Bismol onto the canvas, where he keeps cool with palm fronds, watermelon slices, or Instagram logos.

Katherine Bernhardt, Tacos + Money, 2013, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 75 × 84". Courtesy CANADA Gallery.
Katherine Bernhardt, Tacos + Money, 2013, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 75 × 84". Courtesy CANADA Gallery.

This rollicking volume supplements more than one hundred pattern paintings (dating from 2013 to 2016) with a four-page spread of Instagram posts, in which Bernhardt’s work provides pitch-perfect backdrops for “arty” poses. An accompanying essay by Nicole Rudick tallies the artist’s eclectic inspirations, from traditional Moroccan rugs, African Dutch-wax-
print fabrics, and annual trips to Puerto Rico to an encounter with a Laura Owens painting, an experience that convinced Bernhardt “that a painting could be anything . . . you could paint a bee next to a line, and that was a painting.” Her math checks out.