A distinguished realist painter associated with New York City’s DC Moore Gallery, Debra Bermingham is a 1970s Cornell MFA graduate and longtime resident of the Finger Lakes area. However, she rarely exhibits regionally.
Bermingham’s current show at Corners Gallery, “Tales from the Blue Ship Tearoom” (through Aug. 31), thus has the feeling of a homecoming. But it’s also a departure, as it features not her better-known traditional painting but her recent work with collaged and assembled objects. Using antique wooden frames and supports, old book covers, paper ephemera, ship models, and delicate metal bits, the artist conjures a pre-20th century maritime fantasy—an interesting choice for the conspicuously landlocked artist.
Her work here, most of it wall-mounted, is profoundly attentive to color and touch. In addition to found textures and scrawls, the artist incorporates her own small painted panels. These underline a deeper link to her earlier practice, characterized by a subtle, airy rendering and often featuring eccentric still-life.
Particularly since its 2014 expansion, the Cayuga Heights gallery has emerged as Ithaca’s most self-consciously “sophisticated” exhibition space. Framer-curator Ariel Bullion Ecklund, who took over the business a decade ago, has transformed it from a frame shop that did casual exhibits into an urbane showcase for local and national artists. Not that everything at Corners is equally daring or successful, but a certain degree both of surprise and quality are to be expected.
Introduced into the European mainstream by Cubist artists Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso in 1912, collage, and its three-dimensional offshoot assemblage, has tracked some of the most interesting developments in 20th-century art. Two broad directions are discernible: a “formalist” tendency characterized by an abstract-leaning emphasis on color and space versus a more narrative, surreal focus on disjointed imagery.
Bermingham synthesizes both approaches with results that are both pleasing and naggingly unsatisfied. Her sense of formal design is highly precise. Characteristically, she juxtaposes the classical symmetry of her framing (or frame-like) furniture forms with the calculated asymmetry of her attached accents. Results suggest books or display objects on shelves.
Although she only occasionally borrows his signature “box” format, Bermingham’s assemblages recall those of American Surrealist Joseph Cornell in their combination of rigorous structure and dreamy fantasy. As with Cornell’s obsessively elaborated ephemera, the question arises: Does the work transcend kitschy décor to succeed as the “serious” art?
A couple small freestanding pieces recall the Dadaists and Surrealists with their interest in toys and machines. Bermingham’s main direction however, is a series of larger, wall-mounted works. These read as reliefs rather than fully “in-the-round” sculptures—an understandable approach for a painter. (While Cornell’s boxes have a relatively deep, stage-like space, her constructions suggest boxes or shelves that have been stuffed full, creating a more flattened, picture-like effect.)
“The Knightes Tale,” a portrait-format piece, is characteristic of the artist’s general approach, if not her iconography. Blocks of faded orange, browns, dark grays and green, bright and off-whites surround a miniature gallery of images: an exquisitely painted knight-on-horseback toy, a reproduced color drawing of a walled medieval city, heraldic patterns.
Done on an old wooden trunk lid, “Sea Chest” stands out here with its barely contained raw energy. It’s a welcome diversion. The hinges at the top and the dark, battered wood serve as an equal partner to the row of pages collaged across the center. The grisaille colored sheets are scratched and scarred, text and imagery barely legible.
“Tales” is an ambitious show and deserves in particular the attention of anybody interested in the possibilities of the found object for contemporary art. Collage and assemblage have considerable purchase in Ithaca: both as a kind of folk or popular art and as something more ambitious.
I was both intrigued and frustrated by Bermingham’s conjunction of overall symmetry and smaller-scale asymmetry. While the former embodies a classical aesthetic, the latter often suggests a more modernist approach. Their yoking together works perhaps too neatly. It would be interesting to see more variation and more extremity.