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History Repeating Itself: Tragedy, Farce, and Judith Bernstein

With her remarkable new exhibition at Mary Boone — her second at the gallery in eight months — Judith Bernstein resurrects the imagery of her Vietnam-era works in a savage takedown of contemporary American politics and its testosterone-fueled will to power.

Judith Bernstein, “Cockman Always Rises Orange” (2015), acrylic on canvas, 84 x 84 inches (all images courtesy Mary Boone Gallery, New York)

With her remarkable new exhibition at Mary Boone — her second at the gallery in eight months — Judith Bernstein resurrects the imagery of her Vietnam-era works in a savage takedown of contemporary American politics and its testosterone-fueled will to power.

In her gallery debut in May, Bernstein showed paintings from her series The Birth of the Universe, an acerbic meditation on all-consuming maternal rage. The series’ central image — a full-frontal vagina dentata — dominated most of the compositions, but there were also occasional sightings of penis-nosed, scrotum-cheeked creatures the artist calls, appropriately, “dick heads.”

These diminutive, sometimes cowering figures are the direct descendants of Cockman, a Picassoid caricature derived from the graffiti Bernstein uncovered during her excursions into the men’s rooms of Yale University, where she attended graduate school in the mid-1960s.

Cockman is the arch-American demagogue, the embodiment of jingoism, racism, and sexism. In two new paintings, “Cockman Always Rises Orange” and “Cockman Always Rises Gray” (both 2015), Bernstein has repurposed the character for today’s political climate, placing him front and center, in a tie and yellow shirt with a white collar. Other than the background color, done in orange or gray, respectively, the paintings are nearly identical.

Bernstein has scrawled everyone’s favorite limerick (“There once was a man from Nantucket…”) in the upper left corner of the canvas, which appears to have been folded and stained in the manner of the radical French Supports/Surfaces group. The quotation, however, is partial, trailing off halfway through. To the right of the head she has written the title, “Cockman Always Rises,” in slashing black paint strokes, and just below that are the words “Schlong Face.” There’s little doubt about her target.

Judith Bernstein, “Dicks of Death” (2015), mixed media on canvas, 112 x 96 inches (click to enlarge)

But, then again, Bernstein’s images, as made manifest in this show, are signifiers that have less to do with a specific moment than with the perpetual cycles of war, power, sex, and death. Cockman can be Donald Trump or George Wallace — the subject of “Cockman #1 (Alabama’s Governor George Wallace)” from 1966 — or both, or neither. It doesn’t matter. He’s Cockman and, as the title says, he “Always Rises.”

The exhibition, perceptively curated by Piper Marshall, is called Dicks of Death. According to the press release, the title refers to “a Marine nickname for the processed beef franks included with beans, [which were] so termed for [their] foul taste and similarity in appearance to male genitalia.”

By invoking a snippet of military slang conflating food, sex, and killing, Bernstein underscores aggression as a basic human impulse on a par with eating and copulating. Or, for that matter, defecating, an even more elemental act. In a recent interview with Julie L. Belcove in New York Magazine, Bernstein explains the reasoning behind her men’s room raids:

I had to do research. I felt that while you’re defecating, you’re also going into your subconscious. I thought it was an interesting connection — to defecate and then to just write something that comes to your head.

Unlike the Surrealists, whose spontaneous (“automatic”) writings plumbed the author’s subconscious (a process that would later inspire the Abstract Expressionists), Bernstein’s images spring not from her own inner workings but from somebody else’s, someone she’s never met.

Instead of striking a nastier-than-thou pose and assuming the power of transgression for herself, Bernstein is documenting the subconscious disgorgement of the sex-addled male brain, and in the process, parsing out the lust from bloodlust.

A detail such as the fragmentary limerick on the surface of the two “Cockman Always Rises” paintings, in its repetition, unveils its status as an appropriation. Bernstein doesn’t transfer such deliberately provocative material to her canvases simply for its shock value; rather, she is offering it as a marker for the obsessions revealed in a reflexive moment by a junior member of the power elite.

Judith Bernstein, “Union Jack-Off” (1967), mixed media on canvas, 72 x 96 inches

There are four pieces in the show from the 1960s, three prescient works on paper and the willfully egregious “Union Jack-Off” (1967), a painted sculptural relief in which men’s trousers — stuffed and painted the color of blood sausages — are transformed into hideously mangled, ejaculating penises against a backdrop of red-and-white horizontal stripes.

The truncated phrase “UNION JACK-OFF ON U.S. POLICY IN VIET” is splashed in yellow down the right side of the canvas, with the last syllable of “VIETNAM” cut off by the corner. American flags, crumpled and smeared in red, are collaged between the erections or jut out from protuberances. Most disturbingly, an attenuated appendage, which may or may not be a male member, hangs down from the bottom edge to rest on the floor.

“Union Jack-Off” is a spectacular piece of anti-art, but the three works on paper — “Are You Running with Me Jesus?” (1967), “The Bank Dick” (1967), and “Iraq Travel Poster” (1969) — though smaller and simpler, also warrant close scrutiny.

The first, “Are You Running with Me Jesus?” (1967), a mixed-media collage, is ostensibly about the struggle for civil rights, which had reached a flashpoint with rebellions in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in August 1965 and in Newark, N.J. (Bernstein’s birthplace) in July ’67. Pasted in the middle of the cut-out newspaper reports on urban street gangs, however, are scraps of paper covered with obscene limericks and other bathroom graffiti, including a complete version of “Nantucket,” alongside a deflated, bubble-gum-colored balloon resembling a very long condom mounted by a miniature American flag.

Judith Bernstein, “Are You Running with Me Jesus?” (1967), mixed media on paper, 26 x 40 inches

These additions at first seem starkly out of place, but once the larger context becomes apparent — the libidinous thrust of imperial power and the neglect and abuse it leaves in its wake — the collage’s elements join into a fractious, elliptical whole.

“The Bank Dick,” a mixed media work reusing the title of the 1940 W.C. Fields comedy for its triumphantly erect penis pasted with phony greenbacks, could have easily been made — without changing a thing — in the aftermath of the 2008 crash. But it’s not the only ‘60s piece ahead of its time.

In the oil stick drawing “Iraq Travel Poster,” a hand pumping an erect penis occupies the left half of the composition, while the horizontal red, white and black bars of the Iraqi flag adorn the right. The picture refers to the turmoil surrounding the 1968 Baathist coup and the First Kurdish Iraqi War, but it also serves as a reminder that Bernstein’s time at Yale overlapped the dissolute undergraduate career of George W. Bush, who was completing his junior year when she received her MFA in 1967. For all we know, he could have been the author of some of the graffiti she appropriated. Now whiling away his retirement as a mediocre amateur painter, he may have even drawn the prototype of Cockman himself.

If this is inching toward Pynchonian territory — the telescoping of the unlearned lessons of history into an Ivy League toilet stall — so be it. By yoking her ‘60s imagery to the cascading disasters of the Iraq War — which Bush, who avoided service in Vietnam (along with Dick Cheney and Donald Trump), launched without a moment’s hesitation — Bernstein presents us with a split screen juxtaposing the death-spiral of Vietnam with the brutality, ineptitude and callowness of the Bush-Cheney regime.

Judith Bernstein, “Iraq Travel Poster” (1969), oil stick on paper, 23 x 35 inches

In contrast to the quasi-Shakespearean, tragically flawed character of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who chose to end his presidency rather than preside over an unraveling nation, Bush breezed through his time in office untroubled by anxiety or doubt. As late into his term as July 2006, midway between the floods of Katrina and the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Richard Wolffe reported in Newsweek that Bush “still trusts his gut to tell him what’s right, and he still expects others to follow his lead.”

Bernstein’s conflation of Vietnam and Iraq is made graphic in “Union Jack-Off” and the two paintings from 2015 that reprise its imagery, “Star Spangled Boner” and the title work, “Dicks of Death.”

The tarp-like fabric comprising the penises in the new paintings is less identifiable than the recycled pants in “Union Jack-Off,” and the flags are arranged more formally, with billowing, almost baroque red-and-white stripes against a square of starry blue cantons, but the real difference is that their meanings have shifted from the bluntness of the earlier series toward something more emblematic and ambiguous.

The older works never let you forget that they are about the war in Vietnam; the new paintings instead conjure a pervasive air of political idiocy and state violence, an abstraction of the problem of aggression. But there’s also the possibility that the titles “Star Spangled Boner” and “Dicks of Death” are puns on the names of John Boehner and Dick Cheney, a calling-out of the incompetent and malevolent in political life.

Although she makes a strong case for belligerence as part and parcel of the human animal, I don’t see Bernstein’s art as fatalistic — that we are by nature doomed to repeat historical cycles of violence. If, for the sake of argument, the new paintings single out individual politicians (L.B.J. was a prime target of Bernstein’s scorn in the ‘60s) as the villains of this play, it’s conceivable to extrapolate that we fall to bloodshed not due to our DNA but because we are trapped in the stratagems of the powerful and the power-hungry.

For this reason, a painting like “Hoover Cock” (2016), a restatement of the 1966 canvas “LAMF” (which, according to the artist, stands for “Like a Mother Fuck” — without the more common “-er” at the end), comes off not as the work of a pessimist but an outraged idealist, even with its hard-to-take invocations of ISIS and Mein Kampf. The eye is drawn instead to the bright primary colors that comprise the image, the emotive brushwork, the silly dirty joke scribbled in the upper left corner. The painting surface surges  with life.

Judith Bernstein, “Seven Panel Vertical” (1973-1978), charcoal on paper, entire: 180 x 540 inches

The undeniable buoyancy of Bernstein’s work, the reveling in materials and touch, is nowhere more evident than in the 45-foot-long “Seven Panel Vertical” (1973-1978) from the artist’s monumental Screw Drawings series, which occupied much of her attention between the Vietnam years and the inception of The Birth of the Universe.

Done in charcoal on seven large rolls of paper, these images (unlike many of the Screw Drawings) look less like mechanized penises and more like actual screws. But the real attraction is the sure-handed rendering of the lines and forms, the dramatic contrasts between velvety black and stark white, and the delicate charcoal smears feathering off the solidity of the screw heads.

Throughout Bernstein’s new work there is a playfulness within the repetition of a motif, a formal artistry that’s easy to overlook among her extremes of expression (even as those extremes feel fully justified). The recapitulation of the images she created as a young woman comes as a surprise, but it is a point well taken, a necessary reminder in a presidential election year of the arrogance that shaped recent American history, and the toilet stalls that spawned it.

Judith Bernstein: Dicks of Death continues at Mary Boone Gallery (541 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until February 27.

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