“When some people walk through an art gallery, they look at each image maybe four or five seconds,” says Petra Bernstein. Bernstein, a German-born, Eastern Shore-based artist whose solo show at the Dorchester Arts Center in Cambridge just opened about a year late–a delay driven by a pandemic you may have heard about. “My goal is to get people to look closer to the art image–to engage their eyes and their attention a bit longer,” she says, “to get them asking, ‘What am I seeing?’ “
If you linger only a few seconds over her overlaid artworks or her more straightforward paintings, you may dismiss them as pretty pictures of a hibiscus or an iris in glorious bloom. But look closer. On many of her paintings, and especially her archival photo-enhanced images, you’ll notice that flowers don’t bloom in such a way in nature unless they’re altered—genetically or in Bernstein’s art, by digital means.
Nature and Beyond is the aptly named solo exhibition now open at the handsomely refurbished downtown Cambridge arts center. The show reflects the radiant yet subtle beauty inspired by shimmering floral petals and glistening water flows Bernstein observes outside her Wicomico riverfront home in Salisbury and at other Eastern Shore vistas.
Her flower compositions are easier to identify, even the nocturnally suggestive photo-enhanced painting in the storefront window of what was once Nathan’s on High Street in Cambridge. Bernstein labels it Dancing in the Dark after the 1980s Bruce Springsteen hit that was playing when she was finally satisfied by the image that emerged. “You could never get that effect from direct observation,” she says, pointing to a leaf in the lower-left corner of her floral-dominated canvas. It could be a stellar constellation or the ghost of a fallen leaf of the marshmallow-white hibiscus. Water beads, which she spritzed for visual effect, cluster on each petal.
Bernstein describes her current approach to art as an “evolution.” She didn’t always paint this way nor shoot photographs as she does now. Bernstein, whose first degree was in elementary education, says she was always inspired by the verdant valleys and snow-white peaks of her native Bavaria. But she didn’t take up painting until moving to flat-landscape Salisbury with her husband 26 years ago and earning a second bachelor’s degree at Salisbury University in fine art painting. One of her early group-show entries won a people’s choice award in a 2008 national competition invitational. It was a finely crafted portrait of her first muse, Petra and Kevin Bernstein’s daughter, Sarah.
That Petra Bernstein wound up in Salisbury is a result of a chance transatlantic romance that developed when her husband-to-be was dispatched to Bavaria representing K&L Microwave, which has nothing to do with the ubiquitous ovens perched between cabinets framing stovetops in kitchens virtually everywhere today. K&L Microwave, based in Salisbury, specializes in filtering out random audio signals that interfere with what the client wants to hear. There are myriad commercial as well as military applications for such technology.
There was little technology involved in Petra Bernstein’s early figurative artwork. She moved on to representational environmental paintings–scenic land- and seascapes and flora studies often painted from photographs. Now she manipulates painting and photography to filter in or out random visual signals to coax the viewer to interpret something uniquely her own.
Only in recent years, Bernstein says, has she gone full time as a professional artist. “I paint every day,” she says, “though not all day every day.” In that time, her work has evolved into abstracts. Still, her floral compositions, whether with or without photographic overlays, are easily recognizable, even if it’s not what you would see if the image was taken directly from what was before the artist’s eyes. Cinderella, for instance, is rendered as if it were the namesake’s pink hibiscus gown as she was about to try it on for the royal ball.
More abstract are the water images, such as Odysea, suggesting wormlike squiggles that may be glimpsed in current- or wind-blown water surfaces by way of semi-hallucinatory slants of sun- or moonlight. Other Bernstein abstracts involve pastel and earth-tone stacks, some resembling multi-layered cakes, others perhaps a pile of poolside towels. Bernstein smiled at my observations as if to say without saying so out loud, “Whatever you think.”
That’s her point–to engage your eye and your mind.
To encourage such engagement, there’s an observer-participation aspect to her show. The Dorchester Garden Club has created plant-sculpture re-creations of several paintings in the exhibit. Take a sheet in the lobby and try to match the garden club entries with the painter/photographer’s artworks.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts writer and critic now living in Easton.
NATURE & BEYOND
Paintings/photographs by Petra Bernstein through March 27, Dorchester Center for the Arts, 321 High St., Cambridge. Hours: noon-6 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays. Virtual reception, 6 p.m. March 13, via Facebook: live comments from the artist and a virtual tour of her show. Free admission to the show and virtual reception.