There’s a great tradition among painters of finding, buying or stealing mediocre paintings and then improving them. Take, for example, a classic “thrift store” painting: An idyllic, tranquil seaside scene, with a village and a sailboat—the kind of generic painting that would be at home in some doctor’s office waiting room or maybe even behind an old fashioned bar. Probably something mass produced by a workman artist who cranks the things out, by rote, at the rate of 15 an hour.
An artist might take that painting, touch it up a little, and then add a giant cartoonish sea monster just a little way out to sea and moving in quickly to attack the boat. This is what 22-year-old Reno artist Blaise Bernadette did in her painting “Dark Waters.” Her sea monster looks like a giant blue squid.
“I just call it a sea monster,” says Bernadette, with a laugh. “Squid don’t have teeth like that.”
The sea monster has fierce, sharp teeth and a facial expression that conveys not quite anger but deep irritation, like his picnic was just invaded by ants. It’s a funny twist, taking a boring cliché painting and adding a big, bright blue splash of ugly life.
“Dark Waters” is one of a half dozen of Bernadette’s paintings currently on display at Tonic Lounge, 231 West Second St., one of two downtown bars currently displaying her work. The other bar is Studio on 4th, 432 East Fourth St. Unlike most young artists just starting out, Bernadette has a manager, Josie Burford, who hustles to get Bernadette’s work out to public venues—thus, the two simultaneous shows.
The Studio on 4th exhibition is the larger of the two. The style and quality of the paintings there vary wildly. She’s clearly an untrained artist, with a loose, naïve, unedited approach. Sometimes this free-wheeling approach is charming, sometimes it makes the work seem juvenile. She uses a variety of materials, often mixing both acrylic and oil paints.
Bernadette describes her work as, “Surrealism … it’s close enough to reality, but off in some way that’s sort of eerie.”
She fits in with the current pop surrealism movement in painting, which depicts surrealistic scenes in styles that take inspiration from Saturday morning cartoons, comic books and cereal boxes. Bernadette’s best work is when she veers closer to cartoon-like depictions. Her technique seems crude when rendering in a realistic fashion, but appealing when she paints teddy bears.
Her most compelling work at Studio on 4th is a series that depicts teddy bears enacting horrific scenes from history: the crucifixion, the assassinations of Lincoln and Kennedy, the holocaust, the Vietnam War and more. Most of these painting are small, single panels of teddy bear violence.
“Grassy Knoll” looks like a cartoon still from the Zapruder film, a gruesome, bloody JFK bear and a Jackie bear with a horrified expression. It’s a very unsettling mix of cutesy cartoon appeal and historic, distasteful violence. Not surprisingly, Bernadette says the bear series, and “Grassy Knoll” in particular, has attracted some decidedly mixed reactions.
“I can’t even tell you how offended my dad is by that,” she says. “He calls me sometimes just to talk about it.”