The colorful squares of Elaine Berlin
Want a sneak peek at Elaine Berlin's work? Stroll past Berlin's for Men and Women on King Street and you'll see some of her work in the window. "When I first started helping my father in the store I used to do real elaborate window displays," says the artist. More recently, she would paint the windows for Spoleto. But the demands of running a clothing store and moonlighting as an abstract painter leave little time for display work these days.
Berlin paints late at night with her dog, Rembrandt, keeping her company and expressing partiality to specific work by getting "right up close and personal" to it. When it was time to choose a title for this year's Piccolo Spoleto poster, Office of Cultural Affairs director Ellen Dressler Moryl came up with "Rembrandt's Favorite."
A first-time Piccolo poster artist, Berlin's story is a true underdog tale. For years she submitted paintings and was rejected, working in a medium that she knew wasn't as popular as her peers' traditional output.
"It's not the format people go for," says Berlin, who has been painting professionally for two decades. "I've been told for years I should have switched to traditional painting." Now her work is becoming accepted, with buyers traveling to Charleston specifically looking for abstract work. She's gone from mounting her canvases with paperclips to "framing them right" in Marion Square, where she's a mainstay of the Piccolo Spoleto Outdoor Art Show (this will be her 19th).
In the mid-'90s Berlin began consciously incorporating squares into her art. Now much of her most popular work — "Rembrandt's Favorite" included — has a patchwork scattering of the shapes. But her most resonant paintings are expressionist takes on a weather-ravaged Lowcountry ("Broken Fences," "Storm Watch.")
"Some people think abstracts are so much easier to do than landscapes," Berlin says. "They're not. Most artists are looking at something, like a flower. I'm looking at a blank piece of paper. I have to come up with something."
She feels that her time has come and Charleston art collectors are certainly showing their appreciation of her work, if the price tags are anything to go by. While she sold her work short in her early days, she now charges $10,000 or more.
"I try to keep the prices up. I do not make prints, I don't do commissions." Berlin's a champion of keeping her art 100 percent once-it's-gone-it's-gone original. The only reproduction of her work is the poster itself. "Even that isn't quite the same as the original," she explains, noting that the iridescent paint she used doesn't show on the copies.
"Rembrandt's Favorite" continues a trend for nonrepresentational Piccolo poster art. This image, while it's worthy in original form, doesn't sum up the festival in the way that, say, Bea Aaronson's 2005 "La Fete de la Nuite" did. That was also an abstract piece, but it soared with imaginative, chimeric forms. The ingenuity and sense of occasion seen in Spoleto posters is lacking in the last couple of Piccolo ones — strange, when Spoleto has no visual arts component and Piccolo's left to uphold the medium. —Nick Smith
ELAINE BERLIN INVITATIONAL • Piccolo Spoleto • Free • May 25-June 10 • City Gallery at the Dock Street Theatre, 133 Church St. • 554-6060