A wall from Ellen Berkenblit exhibit ‘The Clock Unlocked’ at the Anton Kern Gallery. (Bernard Yenelouis)

Ellen Berkenblit’s current exhibition at the Anton Kern Gallery is noted by the gallery as “the first exhibition to encompass works from over four decades of New York painter Ellen Berkenblit’s practice.” Sounding like a potential museum mid-career survey, this summation gives little sense of the great vivacity and consistent wit of Berkenblit’s paintings and drawings. Hung salon style, the individual works interact with each other as a kind of delirious dark landscape of the psyche, somewhere between a ghost story and a cartoon. This could also be viewed as a one-piece installation, as well as a survey of four decades, by virtue of the unity of the work.

WHO: Ellen Berkenblit
WHAT: The Clock Unlocked
WHERE: Anton Kern Gallery
WHEN: September 12 – October 20, 2018

The imagery references both Romantic art and the cartoons of old copies of The New Yorker and Playboy. The human protagonists are female, and range from wide-eyed vulnerable figures to malevolent witches. Spirit animals, as it were, are our protagonist(s) companions. The animals, the bats, and the spiders appear to be co-conspirators in these tableaux, which balance the fearsomeness of dreams with antic wit.

My emphasis on the narrative aspects of the work should be understood in the context of Berkenblit’s consistent and refined formal skills. Looking at the checklist for the dates of the individual pieces, it is curious that even when working with a wide range of techniques it all seems of one mind and time. The intelligence of Berkenblit’s references, the mental agility of the imagery is equal to the discreet formal gorgeousness of the painting itself. This is a smart, seductive exhibition.

Untitled, oil on linen, 1993, by Ellen Berkenblit. (Bernard Yenelouis)