In many ways, Margot Bergman is a quintessentially Midwestern artist, eschewing trendiness and exhibiting the kind of independence, even outsider-like eccentricity, often associated with the region. Active in Chicago since the late 1950s and having shown with Corbett vs. Dempsey since 2006, she creates loosely rendered, neo-expressionist paintings that have portrayed various subjects over the years but most recently depict human, generally female, faces in close-up. There is a kind of straightforward, one might say Midwestern, honesty about these psychologically penetrating images, as if she is looking for truth at a time when truth is seen as outmoded or impossible. While she does display a bit of wry humor at times, she is not attempting to make a statement or be ironic.
After trying on styles for several decades, Bergman arrived at her signature expressionism in the 1990s, and has recently achieved her greatest recognition. She has had solo gallery exhibitions in New York and Los Angeles in the past two years, and in the coming year will have two solo museum shows in Europe. On display in her latest show at Corbett vs. Dempsey, “Thank you for having me,” were nine acrylic portraits ranging from roughly two to five feet tall. While in a previous series Bergman used paintings she bought from thrift stores and flea markets as her supports—trying, in a sense, to collaborate with the original artists and pull out some hidden meaning with her imagery—in this latest body of work she started fresh, with blank canvases, depicting fictional women and attempting to convey the essence of her subjects as she sees it. The visages, like those in her prior works, appear off-kilter, exaggerated, and sometimes bloated. In the single horizontal piece on view, Effie and Ida (2017), two faces blur together. In other works, like Brenda (2015), parts of the faces look shrouded and indistinct. Two eyes and two mouths appear on top of each other in Margaret (2017), like the features in some of Georg Baselitz’s portraits. It’s as though Bergman envisions multiple personas in the same person. Throughout this body of work, Bergman demonstrates a heightened virtuosity: see the agile lines and watercolor-like washes of acrylic in Constance (2018), for instance, or the beautifully realized green iris of the right eye in Monica (2018).
Bergman has expressed admiration for Baselitz, Willem de Kooning, and Lucian Freud, and their influence is certainly apparent in her fondness for distortion and the grotesque. At one point, she had a studio down the hall from Chicago Imagist Ed Paschke, and it’s impossible not to think that some of his work, which often comprised tight portraits and demonstrated a penchant for the outlandish, rubbed off on her as well. Some might call Bergman’s portraits monstrous. “Sometimes they are quite shocking to even me,” she admitted to an interviewer in 2014. But it is a benign monstrousness—the point being less to shock than to probe, to unblinkingly portray the inside and the outside, the dark with the light.