Sometimes ferocity fades over time. Sometimes it doesn’t. For Judith Bernstein, it just gets bigger, brighter and wilder. Now in her seventies, Bernstein has been dishing out the unpalatable for more than forty years with no sign of letting up.
There’s been a resurgence of interest in Bernstein’s work over the past several years, highlighted by a solo show in the New Museum’s first-floor gallery in 2012, and she’s back at full throttle with Birth of the Universe, an exhibition of black-light paintings at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. Like her phallus-laden, punk-era political drawings, the show appears duty-bound to offend.
If you’re looking for nuance in Birth of the Universe, forget it. All you’ll find for your trouble is the terror and ridiculousness of existence. But a lack of nuance doesn’t imply a lack of complexity. The paintings are dominated by male and female genitalia, the former primarily diminutive and ancillary, the latter gargantuan and voracious; the intersections and overlays of these crazed-looking, emotionally supercharged, disembodied organs approach the chaotic palimpsests of street art, an unstable amalgam further compounded by the ultraviolet light’s aura of indeterminacy.
As our eyes scan the surfaces of the paintings, we are forced to ask ourselves just what we are looking at. The UV lights have set the brighter hues aglow while deepening the darker ones into Stygian slashes or frigid voids. We are experiencing art under highly controlled, artificial circumstances; the connection between intent and effect is severed, leaving us uncertain whether the artist had the ultraviolet in mind from the start and keyed her color accordingly, or came upon it as an afterthought (the medium, according to the checklist, is oil on canvas or paper; no DayGLo or other fluorescent pigments seem to have been used).
The New Museum show included one of the works now at Gavin Brown, “Birth of the Universe #4: Space, Time, Infinity” (2012), but presented it under conventional lighting, which rendered it into a very different painting, lacking the fiery red and yellow that appear under UV. The contrast might be likened to watching a 2D version of a 3D movie: the diminishment of experience is proportionate to the necessity of 3D to the filmmaker’s vision.
Such speculation may seem beside the point in light of the raw vulgarity of the images, which haven’t evolved much from the bathroom graffiti that Bernstein appropriated for her antiwar drawings and collages during the late 1960s (a selection of which are found in the gallery’s back room), but I believe that the ambiguities engendered by the lighting cut to the heart of the paintings’ frightful, alienating power.
That we don’t know what we are looking at — or, more precisely, that the eye-popping effects are the result of a form of radiation that distorts our normal range of vision — mirrors the astronomical, biological and psychological realities that lie beyond quotidian existence. Their terrifying mysteries find expression in the pandemonium depicted in the paintings, where fluorescent forms incessantly collide and explode, where obscenities serve as descriptors and penises turn into elephantine noses or the bulging, squirting bug-eyes of giant vagina heads.
In “Birth of the Universe #14 (2013), three of these heads are planted on three pairs of shoulders beneath three loosely hanging nooses, as if the moment of conception were the preparatory step for the moment of death. (As Samuel Beckett writes in Waiting for Godot (1953), “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. […] Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps.”)
Conception occurs deep within the body, an ageless mystery now fraught with an awareness of the genome’s infinite complexities. It is the beginning of something out of nothing, or rather, of something out of two sets of chromosomes that would be useless without the other. Violent brushstrokes, random flare-ups of color and ceaselessly ejaculating penises bound through Birth of the Universe, underscoring the feverish chaos of the generative process and the accidental causations that made us into who we are. The essence of our origins is as unknowable as the length of our lives or the circumstances of our deaths.
Like Gustave Courbet’s infamous “L’Origine du monde” (“The Origin of the World,” 1866), which is evoked by the exhibition’s title and content, Birth of the Universe casts an anatomical detail as a metaphor of the “first cause” (as Thomas Aquinas termed it) of the physical universe (while adding a streetwise dimension to the concept of the Big Bang). In late March, the New York Times reported that recently detected gravitational waves are believed to be “the long-sought markers for a theory called inflation, the force that put the bang in the Big Bang: an antigravitational swelling that began a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the cosmic clock started ticking.”
What is more unimaginable than “a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second,” other than what existed before time itself began? Especially when it is impossible to fathom what’s going on in the head of the person sitting next to you?
Bernstein began her career during the most tumultuous years in recent political history, and since then the chasms of empathy and understanding, riven along cultural and geographical flash points, have only widened. The end of the conflict in Vietnam ended nothing else: wars still rage; callowness and mendacity still reign. Her response, on the evidence of this exhibition, has been to ratchet up her outrage, once harnessed against a specific war, and deploy it against stupidity on a cosmic level — a fault that lies solely within us, starting with the day we’re born.
Judith Bernstein: Birth of the Universe continues at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (620 Greenwich St, West Village, Manhattan) through April 19.