Twilight Talks – A conversation with painter Ellen Berkenblit
Twilight Talks – A conversation with painter Ellen Berkenblit

>>>Ellen Berkenblit is a
painter who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Her
semi-abstract paintings conjure a private world of fanciful
and evolving characters, most often birds,
witches and tigers. She studied painting at
the Cooper Union and her work is in many important
museum collections, notably MOCA Los Angeles
and MoMA New York.>>>Your painting is sort
of a physical act. Right? And I think it’s almost
maybe like if you work not specifically for a deadline of a
show or something, you’re basically staying in
shape. Maybe as much the muscles as
the skill, the precision.>>>My work feels very
athletic always to me, especially, most of the
paintings are so large. I feel like I do have to
stay in shape physically to move them around as I
do, because I rotate them as I’m working on them. >>>I’m imagining you are
climbing on things… >>>And I climb on things,
ladders. >>>Yes [laughter]. >>>I feel like my
interests are so narrow in terms of how to spend my
day. My biggest need is to go to the studio every
day. So I’ve never had that thing of making work
for a show. >>>When I read
descriptions of your work they describe it a lot for
a long time and then they sort of don’t seem to know
where else to go with it, in a way, because it is so
strikingly formal, I think, and it does seem to
be its own little world with its own cast of characters.
It feels very kind of insular.>>>There is a moment
where you do have to shut the door of your studio whether
it’s… wherever that is, and really let that part of
your mind… one part shut down, the other open up. I
think it’s really that simple. But I think that’s not
a constant, nor should it be a constant state of
psyche. I think…>>>You can’t live in that
permanently. You have to…>>>It would be disgusting. It
would just be so horrible.>>>Self-indulgent or… >>>Yeah. And it’s crucial
to making things but the other part is as crucial,
when you’re aware and awake and walking down the
street and reading the paper.>>>It’s crucial for having,
like, human relationships, you know.>>>Yeah. >>>You couldn’t, we
couldn’t just live in our own work all the time.
Maybe some people do. >>>But I also feel like
there is a… like a studio without walls concept,
too, where, when… when I personally am walking
down the street, I’m also making up stories in my
mind, and also seeing different colors side by
side for a tenth of a second. And I feel like
that all goes into the… whatever that’s called you
know. >>>Do you think you think
visually or something? I mean do you actually
understand the world through flashes of color
and shapes? >>>I think I see the
world in terms of little vignettes and things, so
color is part of that vignette. And you know, it’s sound,
it’s everything, smell and its physicality.>>>We’re actually afraid
maybe to be left with our own minds in a certain way
and I think maybe advertisers and corporations don’t want
us to be left with our own imaginations because they
want us to need products to…>>>Right. The imagination
is like right is the antithesis of product
need. >>>Talk about the
ultimate sustainability. >>>Right. Right you have
it all like right here. You don’t need anything. >>>Your paintings involves
a pretty minor cast of characters repeat
performances by certain people who change over
time: a tiger or a bird and a female persona. >>>I don’t think I could
reveal too much because I think they keep changing
for me as well. I also think of the lines that I
make and… very calligraphic… they’re
really like drawing letters, starting which is often a
profile but quite often especially again with the
paintings where there can be more layers. What might
start as a tiger might end up as a witch. And what
might start as, you know, a witch might end up as a
car. Actually I’m doing some trucks and cars right now.>>>I want to say that you
know for you, you’re sort of creating for yourself a theater
where you stage a drama. But they often
don’t feel completely resolved, like they feel, they feel…
and maybe it’s like a French movie that doesn’t really,
kind of, come to a happy conclusion or any particular
conclusion, but somehow that’s more satisfying than…>>>Oh, I’m glad. >>>…than it would be if
it all worked out or didn’t work out either
one. >>>I feel like they are
pretty open ended and I think it also has to do
with the way I work, where there’s many going on at
once. Any one of those paintings is up for grabs
in terms of me going back to it even though maybe
I’ll think it’s finished for a few months. I like
the idea, and I think of this word a lot: is
nonchalant. Getting “chalant” with work, to
me, feels like when everything shuts down. >>>I never thought of that
before, chalant means hot right?>>>That’s true, yeah. >>>So not hot, you know,
it is kind of cool. >>>Oh yeah it’s cool. >>>It’s the French word
for cool, nonchalant. >>>You know what, thank
you, Kevin, I didn’t really put that whole
thing together. >>>I never thought of
that. >>>Yeah… that’s good,
that’s cool. >>>[Laughter] It’s the
French way of saying cool.>>>Which is even cooler. >>>Yeah [laughter]. >>>Your father was a
chemist but he was actually a really passionate
amateur photographer and I know he took a lot of
pictures of you.>>>And actually our
family. He started taking pictures when he was about
12 or so. He grew up in the Bronx, he was an only
child, he got a camera. They didn’t have money at
all but he found a camera. And then he built a little
darkroom in their bathroom. So when we were all growing
up as kids my father put a darkroom in our house.>>>Which could’ve been a
second bathroom for you all but…>>>Absolutely, it was a
half bathroom that really was needed. And I feel
like I am so like my father in that my way of
painting is so diaristic, it’s really how one
processes their life through feeling materials
and making a solid thing. A photograph, a painting.
It’s like writing a diary. And he would get so mad at
me because I would say, you know, I became a
painter because of you. And that really would make him
mad or it would make him laugh.>>>Because it confuses
him? >>>Not at all but I think
he just thought I was saying something to make
him feel better about the fact that I chose a profession
that’s not a profession at all.>>>One question I wanted
to ask you too was, did you feel that painting is
less or more relevant now in the world, and I think
sometimes paintings like poetry, it feels so archaic, and
yet I feel the whole society really wants to escape
into fantasy more and more.>>>If that’s what my paintings
do for people I’m thrilled, I’m so thrilled. If it
gives them a moment to pause, then that’s what I would love
my work to do for people. I have no agenda with my work
other than to make people pause for a second.

1 thought on “Twilight Talks – A conversation with painter Ellen Berkenblit”

  1. Jose Luis Orbegozo says:

    A very intimate conversation about Ellen's playful paintings. "Painting is like drawing letters". The sunset is fantastic!

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