The Artist Giving E.T. Pepsi and Xanax

Published February 6, 2020

In 1982, a 7-year-old Katherine Bernhardt dressed up as E.T. for Halloween. As a child in St. Louis, Bernhardt was an E.T. fanatic—she saw Steven Spielberg’s 1982 blockbuster 18 times in the local movie theatre, and still has her E.T. bathmat, sticker book, puzzles, and more.

Who knew that 38 years later, the extraterrestrial character would be the subject of Bernhardt’s latest solo show in New York? “Done With Xanax,” which runs until February 15 at CANADA, features paintings of E.T. alongside Xanax pills, candy, and telephones. Bernhardt, who has been called the “female bad boy” of the art world, says the idea came from a friend: “I was in a friend’s room and saw some pills on his table and I asked, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘Xanax. I’m done with Xanax.’ I said, ‘Okay, that’s a perfect title for a show!’”

The show skewers pop culture’s obsession with prescription drugs, among other things. “The whole music and pop culture obsession with prescription drugs—its like, I’m over it,” says Bernhardt. “I don’t take any of that stuff, I never have, but I thought it was a fun title. All those rappers singing about prescription drugs, Xanax, whatever.” Bernhardt is a messy painter, but she likes it that way. She is no stranger to painting ’80s and ’90s cultural icons, like Pac-Man, the Pink Panther, Garfield, and the Nike swoosh. Over the past 22 years, she has taken the New York art world by storm with paintings have been called free-flowing, a combination of pop, color field, and graffiti art. These paintings, which reenact scenes from the seminal Spielberg film, were made in her childhood home in the suburbs of St. Louis, exploring her obsession with pop culture, Pepsi, and escapism. Bernhardt took Interview on a quick tour of the exhibit, and spoke about movies, stickers, and coloring outside the lines.

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“ELLIOTT”

“I made those paintings last summer in St. Louis. I came home and found my sticker book from the 1980s. All my E.T. stickers were in there, and I thought, ‘These would be amazing for my show.’ Since I painted E.T. before at the Art Institute of Chicago, I wanted to go back to it. But why? I thought the E.T. movie was amazing. I saw it 18 times in the movie theatre in St. Louis. It was just emotional. I haven’t watched it recently but have watched parts of it over again. It’s still a good movie, though. My son won’t watch it. [Laughs]. There were kids who came to my opening that were huge E.T. fans, which is funny because kids today wouldn’t watch E.T. unless their parents told them to watch it.”

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“E.T. + PHONES”

“I just like painting 1980s things, like vintage telephones, rotary phones. It’s all just there. What I love is that kids like my paintings. I think kids are just attracted to things that are colorful and fun. They can relate to the everyday object. They just see it and like it. It’s that simple.”

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“PEPSI”

“I’m not a graffiti artist or anything, but I do like using spray paint. It’s fast. It’s like a giant drawing. I like to draw out the paintings first, and I paint the canvases while they’re flat on the floor. I use a lot of water to make them liquidy and fluid. The ‘Pepsi’ painting is super minimal. When E.T. was a sponsor for Pepsi ads in the 1980s, it was probably the first time they used a cartoon character to sponsor shit—it’s usually done by a movie star.”

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“E.T. + XANAX + REESE’S PIECES”

“It’s in the movie—how E.T. loves Reese’s Pieces. He also loved Nerds, M&M’s, and lollipops. I love to use patterns. My thing is that I like to put things together that don’t have anything to do with each other. That’s why E.T. and Xanax was perfect. I don’t think E.T. would have done Xanax. It’s like my toilet paper and cigarette paintings; things that don’t usually go together, but I like that they don’t go together.”

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“HALLOWEEN E.T. + STRAWBERRIES”

“This painting is from the playtime scene with Gertie, where E.T. gets dressed up like a woman in a wig for Halloween. He’s wearing a blonde wig here. People can also dress up a bit like E.T., too. I love making E.T. t-shirts. I tie-dye them and paint on them. I would be into doing my own fashion line. I’m not a fashion designer, though. It’s just t-shirts. They’re fun to make. It’s like wearable art.”

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“E.T. ON BIKE IN BASKET”

“This is from that scene at the end where E.T. is in a basket on a bike. I like a loose painting style. That’s just how I paint. I’m a fan of Philip Pearlstein. I also like how he paints, but I don’t want to stay within the lines. I want to be fluid, watery, and painterly. It makes its own staining, its own colors. It has a life of its own, and I like that.”