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March 2 - 30, 2002 at L.A. Artcore, Downtown

by Bill Lasarow

Floral themes are one side of the diptych that shapes Pat Berger’s body of work. Socially didactic realism that tends to reinforce our sympathies for society’s victims occupies the other half of her attention. While the series of such work that has dealt with the homeless or the elderly is not part of this exhibition, images that juxtapose orchids or irises with artifacts of September 11th do enter into some of her most recent work.

The heart of this show, however, draws on a recent stay in Costa Rica in which Berger observed, photographed, and studied the Central American rain forest environment. Don’t be fooled into thinking that these plant paintings are visual respites from their grittier sisters. While a good deal is invested in delving into the intricacies of how light carves out and records natural forms, Berger is always in search of color and brushwork that allows for personally expressive chords to be struck.

Most typically apparent is a densely packed surface that initially registers as visual chaos. High points quickly begin to emerge: the contrasting color and pattern of a flower or foliage, the sculpted form of a light dappled plant, the electric movement of some branches. The tension between the shifting patterns that push many images towards the surface plane and the contrasting foreground and background elements is very convincing in works such as Heliconia or Jungle Medley.

Even as the generally close-in views create a sense of being immersed in a riot of plant forms, a painting such as The Empress’s Garden moves back a few steps to a visual space that reaches out to a shadow-punctuated ground and firey sky. The zig zag movement of brush across the foreground restrains you from the open volume of space ahead.

Coaxing this psychological distance in the viewer is a consistent feature in Berger’s work. You might begin to feel either absorbed in or suffocated by her compositions, but you will also maintain a certain distance in the engagement. However intense the encounter may be, counterweights are introduced to remind us that we are not part of the action, not to mention to provide visual relief.

This is what makes Berger’s art realist at its heart. But this is not the realism of objectivity free of feeling or point of view. Berger is too emotionally involved in the caress of details and the metaphorical possibility of these not-necessarily-just plants. But she does accept their basic appearance as a given, and resists pushing formally or stylistically into some variant of expressionism or surrealism. What her handling does introduce that transcends cool reporting are accumulated moments of alternately poetic and didactic reflection. This rich array of expressive detail, together with the many formal details making up the images themselves, are usually sorted out with fine clarity and sharpness, though at times there is an element of confusion. They are kept at just sufficient distance to maintain the distinction between observer and participant, and it is the balance between them that gives this work its realist gravitas. At its best, this work maintains a surefootedness that requires both talent and years of experience to achieve.

On the didactic side, September 11th and Ode to September 11th attempt to establish connection between the topic of the titles and the symbolic potential of her floral subjects. They do not work well here because visual spaces are filled too haphazardly in comparison with her other paintings, and the tone that is struck is too plaintive. The juxtaposition alone is gently jarring enough to prompt reflection, but lacks strength or freshness enough to stimulate more than an agreeable nod. Their inclusion should have been resisted.

"Heliconia", acrylic/canvas,
60 x 40", 2000

"The Empress's Garden", acrylic/
canvas, 72 x 48", 2002

"Orchid Triptych", acrylic/canvas,
66 x 24" (each panel), 2002

"September 11th", acrylic/
canvas,60 x 72", 2001