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Into the Abyss: Judith Bernstein’s Dissection of Desire

Judith Bernstein, “Birth of the Universe/Cuntface” (2015), oil on canvas, 84 x 108 inches (all images via maryboone.com unless stated otherwise)

Sometimes you think you have a handle on an artist’s work, and then a new piece of information comes along that casts it in an entirely different light. In the case of Judith Bernstein, whose paintings are now on view at Mary Boone, a moment of reflection by the artist can shift a set of motifs from the insatiably primal to the acutely personal.

Around this time last year, Bernstein presented a series of big paintings at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise called Birth of the Universe, which she displayed under ultraviolet light. These raucous pictures, as I wrote in a review of the show, were “dominated by male and female genitalia, the former primarily diminutive and ancillary, the latter gargantuan and voracious.” Teeming with patterns and hand-lettering, the canvases approached “the chaotic palimpsests of street art, an unstable amalgam further compounded by the ultraviolet light’s aura of indeterminacy.”

The permeation of the UV light, which jacked the color into acid blasts and impenetrable darks, was so strong that it was difficult to imagine the work outside of its grip. In the current show at Boone (where recent excursions into the art of Peter Saul, the late Ed Paschke and now Bernstein, have turned the gallery into something of a haven for the veteran mavericks of American painting), each canvas is lit by two pairs of alternating white and ultraviolet spotlights, so that you are looking at the colors the artist actually mixed, but heated to a discreetly hyper-pigmented buzz.

The exhibition, curated by Piper Marshall, features six large oil paintings and four gestural drawings in charcoal and pastel. The weirdly floral, phallocentric drawings, each titled “Dick in a Head,” with two dating from 2010 and two from 2014, share their DNA with the charcoal drawings Bernstein made during the Vietnam war: gigantic, erect penises threaded like screws or drill bits. These double-edged images made a point of satirizing male aggression by openly mocking the male-dominated arenas of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art.

The notoriety of this work (along with the Fuck Vietnam series of drawings and collages based on graffiti the artist found in men’s rooms at Yale) and the ingrained sexism of academia (where she refused to work for less money than her male counterparts) earned Bernstein decades in the wilderness, an internal exile from the art world that ended in 2008, when she was in her mid-sixties, with an exhibition at Mitchell Algus, New York, and another in 2009 at The Box in Los Angeles.

The uncompromising imagery Bernstein has unleashed in hundreds of works, which arc across a backdrop spanning Vietnam and Feminism to the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, naturally lends itself to a political or philosophical reading, whether the target is the war-making machine or, as I suggested in my review of the Gavin Brown show, “stupidity on a cosmic level.”

However, in an interview with Corina Larkin published in last month’s Brooklyn Rail, Bernstein has this to say about the current show:

The works at Mary Boone will be new paintings. Some of the themes I’ve mined before resurface. I’m dealing with a psychological narrative. I’m actually going back to my own nuclear family, where the mother feels that “you owe me.” A lot of women do that. Men don’t do that as much. They have others issues. Nevertheless, women have a tendency to feel: “You owe me. I gave birth to you. You owe me.”

The psychodynamic revealed in that statement floods Bernstein’s art with a different quality of rage, the personal nature of its source making the already charged imagery especially ticklish to address.

With this disclosure, the cartoonish vulvas and phalluses appear less like sardonic emblems of the randomness of the universe, the idiocy of humanity and/or the cruelty of fate, and more like demented children’s book illustrations or mutant bathtub toys — associations that make the paintings appreciably more moving and disturbing in a single stroke.

There is nothing more intimate than the bond between mother and child at the moment of birth, but in Bernstein’s universe, the comfort of mother’s milk has never been on the menu. Rather, we are confronted with a vagina dentata that cuts both ways: the lacerations scarring the heart of a rejected child coupled with Lear’s curse upon his daughter Goneril:

If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen, that it may live
And be a thwart disnatur’d torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth,
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks,
Turn all her mother’s pains and benefits
To laughter and contempt, that she may feel
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child!

There is an absurd beauty in considering the Shakespearean dimensions of a painting like “Crying Cuntface” (2014), in which a giant vagina dentata, perched on a pair of shoulders and festooned with numbers referring to the age of the universe, cries tears of blood from eyes formed out of the heads of erect penises. In this one painting, Bernstein evokes the anguish of both the scorned mother and the emotionally abandoned child, as well as the bloody violence engendered by vanity, ambition and aggression. Moreover, by surrounding the figure with patterns of stars against fields of blue, white, bronze and gold that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, she implies that such conflicts make up the natural order of things, immutable and eternal.

Judith Bernstein, “Crying Cuntface” (2014), oil on canvas, 84 × 84 inches. Courtesy of the artist (image via brooklynrail.org)

The exhibition’s title, Voyeur — no doubt an indictment of the viewer — is reflected in a painting called “The Voyeur” (2015), in which a similar configuration of shoulders, vagina dentata and penis-eyes is festooned with brown and black brushstrokes indicating tufts of hair. The voyeurs in question are a pair of male genitals resembling elephant heads on the right, mirrored by another in the left-hand corner and a vagina that’s suggestive of a mandala just above it. (The mandala, it worth noting, is a Buddhist symbol of the universe.)

The voyeurs, with the exception of the male figure on the left, stare into the black, central void (rimmed with pointed teeth and filled what could be a spiral galaxy), their sight lines shooting streams of dart-like phalluses and eyeballs that resemble UFOs.

At first this appears to parody the male gaze, but in the light of the mother-child binary, it also becomes an expression of the intense pull to penetrate the mysteries of birth, to unravel the unintelligible emotional tangles spun out of infantile sensory impressions, and to drag them across the threshold of cognition.

But we can’t. Our rational selves (such as they are) were no more present at this inchoate moment of our lives than they were at the birth of the universe. The fourth voyeur — the male figure not partaking in the examination of the void — is depicted as dropping, upside-down, in a vertical path from the vagina-mandala, a fiery Icarus who flew too close to the zone of unapproachable awareness.

The largest painting in the show (7 x 9 feet), “The Birth of the Universe/Cuntface” (2015), is a super-hot paean to anger and impotence, in which a similar genital-elephant, its phallic trunk limp and useless, drifts from the left side of the canvas toward a furiously painted vagina dentata, its volcanic mouth radiating a feverishly fluorescent yellow edged in orange and black. The female figure seems to grow in power and ferocity the longer you look at it, as its male prey retreats and implodes, a full-blown erection pathetically bursting from its skull like an inflamed thought bubble. A victory of sorts of yin over yang, but one that knocks the universe at its birth into a permanent state of imbalance.

With her amputated sex organs, Bernstein restyles the story of Genesis as a morality play set on a dissecting table, where human desire, from mother love to bloodlust, is piteously illuminated in the unearthly glow of UV light. And it’s nothing short of hilarious.

Judith Bernstein: Voyeur continues at the Mary Boone Gallery (745 Fifth Avenue, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 27.

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