Art, Commerce and Katherine Bernhardt

05/19/2010 03:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I got out of grad school, I started a career in motion graphics and web design to support myself until, I hoped, my paintings could support me. I felt it was important that people who hired me to design didn't know I was an artist, lest they think me flaky. And, god forbid, the "art people" know I was a designer because that would mean I wasn't a serious artist. The point I'm trying to make is that we all knew artists had other, more practical, ways of making money but we weren't supposed to talk about it.

As I became comfortable thinking of myself as an artist who also designs, I noticed all around me that these categories seemed to be less strict, more open. And then suddenly, after the market crashed in 2008, all bets were off. Out of financial desperation the culture around art changed and it didn't matter how the f-ck you made money, as long as you could pay the rent. Yeah, art as a commodity has been around a long time but that isn't what I'm talking about. I'm talking about mixing your day job with your art practice, so that they become indistinguishable at times.

Which brings me to Katherine Bernhardt's current show Tombouctou 52 Jours at Canada gallery. Bernhardt paints whatever she is obsessed with. At various times that has been fashion models and Swatch watches. But in 2009, Bernhardt visited Morocco and came back obsessed with all things Moroccan. Her new paintings are based on the colors and patterns of Berber rugs and are shown against walls painted to look like a Moroccan village. The drippy, geometric paintings flicker between abstraction and magic carpets, much as Jasper Johns' flag paintings are both flags and paintings of flags.



This past Sunday, Bernhardt obliterated the line between art and commerce in a way I haven't seen before. She had a rug sale in the gallery from noon to 6pm. You see, Bernhardt recently started a business, Magic Flying Carpets of the Berber Kingdom of Morocco, importing and selling the rugs she's fascinated by. The gallery floor was covered wall to wall with both vintage and contemporary Berber rugs and the effect was incredible. Rather than compete with the show, they enhanced it. It made total sense that the gallery floor be covered in rugs. They turned the gallery space inside out and now, instead of being outside, as the painted walls indicated, we were now inside a kasbah. Magenta, orange, peach and yellow leather poofs were scattered about the room, as were Bernhardt's reference books on Moroccan rugs, decor and food. In the middle of all of it sat the artist, smoking a hookah and quoting rug prices. Artists like Chris Martin and Stanley Whitney came by to check out the bizarre bazaar. (Perhaps a topic for another blog, but it's fascinating to thing of the similarities and differences between the work of these three artists.) The notable thing is that it didn't lessen the seriousness of the paintings (a seriousness that Bernhardt hides so well in off hand brush work). Rather, it seemed perfectly natural to be selling these carpets in the gallery. In effect, Bernhardt revealed the elephant in the living room and told us to revel in it.


This isn't a quite a marketplace shift, we all know art is for sale. It's more a synergistic (ugh. I hate that word but it fits here) crossbreeding of various parts of one's life. Have you been feeling this too? Boundaries have relaxed, my art dealers don't think me less of an artist because I design, and my clients think it's very cool that I'm an artist.