Despite all attempts, fashion has never really been able to crack the art world code. Sure, there are exhibitions set up by fashion labels, collaborations, and name-dropping. And the people who can afford high fashion are the most likely to purchase a piece of contemporary art. But fashion is rarely, if ever, the subject of artistry. For years, Katherine Bernhardt has been taking imagery from print publications and sincerely painting them with her signature broad strokes. The results are irony-free, a self-described fashion obsessive’s take on what it means to love models and iconography. In short, Bernhardt paints huge portraits of huge fashion idols. Or rather, painted. Now she’s onto giant Swatch watches and Moroccan identity, a far cry from what she made her name doing. But the sincerity is there, and that’s the point. Once Bernhardt gets hold of a subject, she doesn’t let it go until she’s made it her own. We caught up with the perky pop artist days before she scooted off to Paris for a big solo exhibition. Her subsequent solo show at New York’s Canada Gallery opens in April.
You’re going to Morocco after your opening in Paris?
Katherine Bernhardt: Yes. My boyfriend lives there. It’s sort of a commute. [Laughs.]
You’re originally from Missouri. Do you feel like you’re kind of a St. Louis person…? A St. Louisian? How do you say that?
St. I don’t know! St. Louisian? [Laughs.] Yeah, I feel like I’m from there. I’ve been in New York for about 12 years now, but I still love St. Louis.
You went to New York for school?
Yeah. Well, first I went to The Art Institute of Chicago for undergraduate. Then, for Graduate school I came to New York to go to the School of Visual Arts.
Yeah, was that the jam?
Oh yeah, I loved SVA.
How did you do in life drawing at SVA? Did they have a life drawing class?
Um, no, that’s more like undergraduate. At grad school, you can do whatever you want, and the teachers come to visit you once a week. There was a really good visiting arts program there, too.
That kind of gets you prepared, huh? ’Cause that’s kind of what life is like.
Yeah, the school is like our studios. We were right in Chelsea so we were right near all of the galleries and everything. It was great.
I really loved your show at Canada a few years ago, Kate, Giselle, Natalia, Agyness, Simon, Kanye, & George. Do you have a new crop of celebrities you’re obsessed with now? Are those people passé? Or are they still the hot tamales?
I’m really into Alice Dellal. Rihanna and Beyoncé. I watch videos in my free time on YouTube. It’s "research." My favorite videos now include Rihanna’s "Rude Boy" and Beyoncé’s "If I Were A Boy," "Sweet Dreams," and "Irreplaceable." [Laughs.] But no, I think that all of those people [from the show] are still in. I’m not really painting models anymore, so I’m not really watching that.
When did you stop painting models?
Maybe, like, a year ago.
Was that because you just got bored with it?
Kind of, yeah. I made all these giant paintings of Swatch watches, and now for my new show in New York it’s going to be totally different. The show’s called “Timbuktu,” and it’s all about Morocco and a camel caravan and carpets and stuff like that.
Wow, some Byzantine shit? Is that because you’ve been going to Morocco?
[Laughs.] Yeah, [I love] the crazy patterns of design. I’m obsessed with the carpets over there. They’re just so irregular and off and crazy-colored. I’m starting a rug company, importing Moroccan carpets to New York. My business is called "Magic Flying Carpets of the Berber Kingdom Of Morocco," and the website will be ready in April.
You paint unbelievably fast. I read that you painted 75 paintings in a summer. How did you get to that point? Was that something you always did? Or is that something that happened later?
I’ve always been really fast. I try to slow down. But in general I’m fast and to the point. But when I painted all those paintings, I had all the canvas prepared and I knew the time frame, and I was really trying to make 10 paintings a day which was impossible. Then I tried to do seven and that was way too much. So then I got it down to three or four a day, and that was more reasonable. And they were small.
That’s still a lot. When you make a painting, do you feel like you get it out and you feel like, “I said it and it’s done”?
Yeah, I guess so, yes.
What’s the Paris show about? Is that Swatch watches?
No, she actually wanted models and figures. She said my identity was as a figure painter. I painted models for her.
Do you ever get nervous about shows?
Yes, totally. I’ll get sick over them. Really nervous and ill. Actually I have total insomnia because I’m so stressed out over the Paris thing.
You did make a lot of art about magazines. What are you going to do when our industry dies?
Well, it doesn’t really matter because I’m not using magazines anymore. I have my Swatch watch catalog. And I’m actually taking photographs of Moroccan carpets and making paintings of the carpets from my own pictures.
So, you already have an exit strategy? I should take a hint from you.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I already have one. [Actually], I don’t think it’s going to die. People love magazines. I hope it doesn’t die.
Yeah, I’m kidding. I do too. Do you watch a lot of TV?
Sometimes. I’ve cut down a little. I [used to] watch eight hours a night. Right now my favorite show is Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I also love The Rachel Zoe Project, Work Out, The Real Housewives of New York—I hate them!—Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Entourage.
What are your top three people you’d like to switch-a-roo with a la Being John Malkovich?
Top three people? Are they alive or dead?
Doesn’t matter. They can be alive and/or dead.
How about… Obama. Ummm. Uhhhh. I can’t think of anyone else.
I can’t think of anyone else.
Okay. Obama works. Last time I saw you, you had just seen Duran Duran. What was the last concert you saw?
Well, I’ve been to five in Morocco. They were percussion and tan tans and singing. You go into the desert into these camps where you can stay in tents and at night they have live music every night and the guys that work there have drums and bass. It’s really cool.
Sounds hippy-ish. Are you turning into a hippy?
Okay. What’s your favorite artificial flavor of bubble gum?
Me too! What do you think the world is going to be like in the future?
The future? Totally overpopulated. I hope that everyone is going to go organic. More green and healthy. But population control needs to be looked into.
What’s your favorite thing about the Internet?
Being able to find information quickly. To look up anything! I love that.