Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Thomas Berding’s insouciant show “Field Test,” at The Painting Center in Chelsea, is a smart, spirited consideration of the tension between the whirl and the pastoral. The seven paintings – and their witty titles – are straightforward enough to impart primary messages clearly, but that leaves more time to decrypt the rewarding nuances of his intricate compositions, or “intuitive geography.” Despite his work’s casual, unconcerned feel, Berding chooses imagery, materials, and color deliberately and carefully. His tableaux, which migrate along the representational–abstract continuum and tilt towards the latter, are purposefully busy and conjured with acrylic, flashe, oil, inkjet, and collage on canvas. This winningly brash artist knows exactly what he’s doing.
Petal to Pedal is an exhilaratingly in-your-face piece, depicting six images of cars overlain with a dominating four-pointed yellow object that is scything though the automotive sheet metal as well as the landscape. The title and look suggest a weaponized flower taking down dirty, old technology. Then again, wheels could be required to get to where the plant life is. Sunset Sedan seems more firmly elegiac, presenting just a single clear image of an automobile draped in pastel colors against a pale sun and captioned with a black-and-white inset of engine cylinders. But it’s not just gear-head happy-talk: the car is perpendicular to the ground and a loose tire rolls off-canvas; James Dean lurks.
Berding’s energetic canvases bring to mind the fragmentation of Jered Sprecher, whose reigning gestalt is restlessness, and the idiosyncratic geometry of Patrick Brennan. Two smaller works, Scratch Off Lottery No. 1 and Scratch Off Lottery No. 2, are more sedate but unequivocally agitated, conveying a desire for cathartic abandon, often frustrated but never relinquished. Screen Touch Kingdom, a larger work, gives off that uneasy quality, but in a claustrophobically digital (in both respects) context. The visual content is more abstract than, say, Petal to Pedal’s, but obscure figures gathered in the middle intimate competing wills emanating from computers – call them artificial intelligence – that might motivate the flight of humans.
The thematic centerpiece of the exhibition may be Head for the Mountains. Again, the overt message is plain. Still, a fusillade of images – a raven (perhaps), a computer screen, a palette, a stack of old tires – amid slashing shards surging towards the edges both affirms and challenges the titular imperative. The mainly gray, relatively uncluttered, and more resolutely representational Sonic Basement may at first resonate the static contentment of a grunge Brigadoon, but that is of course an oxymoron: that young shredder always wanted to be somewhere else.
The show’s counterpart could be Jonathan Demme’s 1986 film Something Wild, in which an antsy banker ventures outside his insular envelope into a world of unexpected treachery and peril; the risk empowers him. Berding’s work may be murmuring, “Be careful what you wish for.” Yet, he would agree, wish you must. And sometimes you must get out in the field and act.
“Thomas Berding: Field Test,” The Painting Center, 547 W. 27th Street, Suite 500, New York, NY. Through September 28, 2019.
Also on view: “Robert Solomon: The Last Temptation of St. Anthony Plus Ming and the Spiders From Mars” and “Michael Wille: Vibrations,” through September 28, 2019.