Art & Design Art & the Artist

Celebrating Pop Culture: Meet Artist Katherine Bernhardt

Pop culture and large-scale paintings featuring cartoon characters clash brilliantly in the mind of the artist dubbed the “female bad-boy” of the contemporary art scene

Artist Katherine Bernhardt, who is inspired by the 1980s and pop culture, is on a mission to put Midtown St. Louis, Missouri, on the art map. “It’s a cool area that is empty and has huge potential. The buildings are vast and solid. We are trying to revive the area.” The revival has begun with the purchase of three buildings in Midtown Alley, a neighborhood previously known as Automobile Row, where cars were once assembled and displayed.

“I bought one building and made it my studio. I planted an apple orchard outside,” says St. Louis native Bernhardt. “I also bought two nearby buildings, creating ‘the Midtown design/art district,’ but it’s hard when there are no people here!”

Artist Katherine Bernhardt in front of a large scale painting of cigarettes
Katherine Bernhardt, whose work—described as "crackling with electrifying color and lively brushwork"—can be seen in David Zwirner’s London gallery until the end of July. This is her first solo presentation in the city since 2015. Credit: Javier Romero

Bernhardt grew up in the outskirts of the city, in a home that was to shape the art that has earned her the sobriquet “the female bad-boy” of contemporary art and pop culture. “I come from a messy hoarder house,” she says. “My mom likes to collect stuff like Scottish terrier things and ice-cream molds. My dad likes to collect things from estate sales, so the house is filled with lots of chairs and furniture and stuff; things that don’t go together. This informs my painting a lot. There is an incredible amount of inspiration living in a house that’s this full of stuff. The color of the kitchen—turquoise—has been a huge influence on me as well.”

Bernhardt’s large-scale works—featuring motifs from pop culture such as The Pink Panther, E.T., and hamburgers—are gloriously garish. “I make paintings about things you might overlook in society, like toilet paper and cigarettes. I try to paint things that are funny and have a sense of humor. I like putting things together that don’t necessarily go together, and I clash color.”

Large painting of the Pink Panther
Bernhardt’s work playfully joins the absurd and the relevant, illuminating trends such as the increased desire for comfortable shoes during the COVID-19 pandemic. The painting pictured is called Panther Crocs Iguanas (2021).

The Pink Panther paintings were inspired by a trip to Hawaii with her son. “He was watching The Pink Panther when we were staying in a pink hotel where everything was pink… pink towels, bedspreads, and pancakes… and I thought, ‘Wow, I’m gonna make pink-on-pink paintings of The Pink Panther.’” As well as travel, Bernhardt says she takes inspiration from “’80s design, architecture, things my son is into.”

Bernhardt likes to work quickly, drawing out an idea with the canvas upright on the wall before painting on the floor “with lots of water.” She also works on several projects at once, not all of them art-related.

“I like to have lots of things going on. I’m currently renovating a building on Locust Street, and I’m designing a bathroom in my parents’ house. I just bought my childhood dream home in St. Louis, which I’m also in the process of renovating, and I’m building a house in Puerto Rico,” she says.

Large scale painting feature bright green croc shoes with a high heel
Titles of works like the one pictured, Green Balenciaga Croc Poncho Pikachu Panther Cigarettes (2021), simply list the objects and figures you can see. However, no such strict visual hierarchies exist within the bold and dynamic artworks.

Back in the art world she’s currently working on upcoming shows and on prints for Greenpeace and Utopia Editions, and recently created a mural in St. Louis with fellow artist Zéh Palito. “It’s cool to make something so massive that everyone can see.”

She’s also championing other artists with her Dragon, Crab, and Turtle gallery. “It’s the storefront of my storage building. The space is full of light and windows, making for a huge space to show art. I started the gallery to show local artists, friends, anything interesting.”

Banner: E.T., Garfield, and the Pink Panther are some of the much-loved cartoon characters reimagined as towering works of art by Katherine Bernhardt. Credit: Javier Romero