The Painting Porch: Cathie Bleck and Marianne Berardi at BAYarts
Plein air painting is a joy, both for artists and audiences. It bridges the gap between a hobbyist’s enthusiasm for art and the deeper commitment of professional artists; even better, it prompts the painter to go outside and look around. Wonderfully basic, it’s a conversation with places and things that produces an enduring response. The process is a one-on-one encounter with perception, a struggle (however quiet) that becomes a truth. The woman with a pencil or brush in her hand confronts the slice of world at hand, and begins to ask questions: what is that color, how square or round or spiky is that house, that bush, how do shapes break down at this moment in shadow or reveal themselves in changing sunlight; what sort of line is made, when the lawn brushes up to the black, broken angles of the neighbor’s trees? How much of the truth can be told, how much must be left unsaid? Importantly, preconception is shifted aside and by the end of the day the artist sees a little differently; the world has changed.
The Painting Porch, currently on view at BAYarts, is an informal exhibition of works on canvas, panel, and paper produced out-of-doors (mostly), which also tells the story of a friendship between the two artists. The time and place are here and now, or the very recent past as the second year of the pandemic began to unfold, when loneliness and emotional fatigue had become a sort of way of life. Marianne Berardi (an internationally respected art historian and sometime museum director, presently Senior Specialist at Heritage Auctions in Chicago) and Cathie Bleck (internationally known artist and acclaimed illustrator of works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Hemingway, and Dante) first met in 2001 when Berardi invited Bleck to take part in a survey exhibition. At the time Berardi was director of the Cleveland Artists Foundation (now ArtNeo) headquartered at The Beck Center in Lakewood, where a large gallery space could accommodate some magnificent historical exhibitions of regional art. This. particular exhibit explored and celebrated crossover artists in our area who moved easily between fine art and illustration. Cathie Bleck was one such person.
Bleck and Berardi hit it off immediately. Marianne was surprised and relieved, “She had a huge positive spirit, coming from an illustration background; she wasn’t a prima donna!” The same might be said of Dr. Berardi, who never mentions her professional credentials or pulls artworld rank. It’s no wonder they remain close, more than two decades down the road. It helps also that they have kids who have grown up together and live in the same East side suburb.
Plein air painting was exactly suited for the situation of extended stress and enforced semi-isolation, which seemed to fold the whole planet over on itself beginning in February of 2020. By the spring of 2021, relaxing and painting on Bleck’s comfortably furnished and enclosed back porch sounded like a dream. When Cathie suggested that plan one day Marianne (not really known for her painterly excursions) may have been a little surprised, but she jumped at a chance to change hats, away from the prestigious, stressful day job. A few weeks later the pair had produced the beginnings of a body of work, and in the following months other places and experiences were added to the mix of studies that each produced. When Marianne travelled with her husband and son to North Carolina, the landscape was no longer bounded by the dimensions of the porch or the enclosure of the back porch, tilting her focus toward the microcosmic. Near Surf City, across from Emerald Isle at the southernmost tip of the Outer Banks, she saw a storm approaching over the land and set out to quickly record and celebrate it. In the wall text next to this small painting Berardi writes, “I looked to the West and saw the storm clouds blasting across a ferocious sunset. Pinks and oranges. I knew no camera could capture the spectacle so I got in the car and drove to the little public park next to the inland waterway in Surf City, near the bridge. I painted this record of the sky, using my steering wheel as an easel.” Nearby, facing outward from a temporary wall near to a glass door in an almost private section of the gallery like a pocket in Berardi’s mind, several other views of coastal scenes painted recently in Greece and here in Cleveland (one is a chilly depiction of a frozen Lake Erie) are hung near another porch, the one which encircles two sides of the Victorian house where the gallery is located. Interior and exterior views stitch across the narrow space, seeming to comment on the way these little paintings reflect the hands and times that made them, opening a window onto a recharged world, and then a door back into the imagery of the ever-dreaming mind.
I was curious and excited to see this exhibit. I know and admire both these remarkable people and admire their accomplishments. I wondered how Berardi’s wide historical and technical expertise might inflect the more casual (and more immediate), autobiographical objects that she’s been making so recently. Equally, the way that Cathie Bleck – an artist whose instantly recognizable abstract sweep and lyrical thrust has made her reputation –might adapt her strengths to the less thundering dramas found in her backyard, intrigued me. So I was not surprised to see a very moving transition in her work from the “painting porch” also. Several mixed media watercolors caught my eye not least because of the rhythmic monochrome and figurative hints they display are clearly part of her larger stylistic project. Titled “Emersion” and “Nesting, the first explores the eye-like markings on a moth’s wing, echoed by a round opening, twinkling in the curl of a leaf (yet somehow it’s also like a painting of a fish!). Nesting is almost entirely abstract, combining feathery wing or tail shapes with other natural forms, plus a ribbon of red curling down at an angle from the center of the piece. As always, then, Bleck’s world from the painting porch is one haunted by animals and symbols, caught up in the gyres and echoes of a majestic inner space. They conjure the hidden energies of a natural world that must find its pleasures, and its meaning, in hidden places and secret paths.
Berardi’s gouache on canvas “painting porch” shows two couches, one orange and one a deep indigo, with a complement of pillows and a table in front of them, against the partly opened porch windows. Gauzy curtains swell and green strokes of bushes and trees can be seen beyond. The small painting’s long rectangle invites the eye to “drink me,” in Alice’s phrase, and take a seat along this sedate corridor of vision. With our backs to the garden we could imagine two friends laughing and talking about things important or less important – Covid, dinner, family, the hand-made inks used in some pictures here – across the table, working and being; we might wonder for a moment, too, at that fungible space/time available to art.