In The Illusion of the End (2004), French philosopher Jean Baudrillard writes, “We shall never experience the original chaos, the Big Bang … we weren’t there.” But, he adds, “since we have been denied [the Big Bang], we might as well put all our energies into accelerating the end, into hastening things to their definitive doom, which we could at least consume as spectacle.”
Cabinet of Horrors, Judith Bernstein’s remarkable exhibition at The Drawing Center, is a response of such spectacle, for our era, in which the consequences are real.
The exhibition, which fills The Drawing Center’s large front room — painted fluorescent orange for the occasion — features several new paintings, along with a selection of charcoal Word drawings from 1995 — monumental inscriptions of single words (equality; evil; fear; justice; liberty) — and a 1969 anti-Nixon painting. There is also an installation of vintage piggy banks collected for the show.
It’s clear who the little pigs represent, but their wide eyes and chubby, grinning faces may be the last vestiges of good will — genuine or faked — before the gravity of the subject matter sets in. Cabinet of Horrors takes on the Trump administration like a nuclear assault. The exhibition feels like a culmination of Bernstein’s 50-year engagement with politics, encompassing every shred of anger, activism, and impropriety from her career. There may be no artist in America better equipped to express the perversity of the Trump administration than Bernstein — as a record of its horrors, her images belong in the next generation’s history books.
Bernstein began addressing politics in her art as a graduate student at Yale in the 1960s. Inspired by men’s room graffiti, she adopted penises as symbols of military aggression and male ego, the twin forces of American politics. Her 1969 painting included in Cabinet of Horrors, “First National Dick,” depicts a Nixon “three dollar bill” pasted on the Capitol Building, which is decorated with stars and stripes and topped with a vertical phallus waving an American flag. Three years earlier, she enlisted the penis to take on another politician, Alabama Governor George Wallace and introduced “Cockman.” “Cockman #1 (Alabama’s Governor George Wallace)” (1966) portrays the notoriously racist governor as a pink, fleshy cock-face, with a scrotum for cheeks, a penile nose, and a cyclopean eye, with “Cockman shall rise again” written in black capital letters in the margin.
Cockman has recurred in Bernstein’s work over the years and it makes a strong showing in Cabinet of Horrors, resurrected as “Schlong Face” — a name she derived from Trump, who used the term “schlonged” at an early campaign rally to describe Hillary Clinton’s 2008 defeat for the Democratic nomination by President Barack Obama. While there is a direct line of racism and bigotry connecting Wallace’s Cockman and Trump’s Schlong Face, Bernstein calls out Hitler as Trump’s essential forebear.
The works in Cabinet of Horrors go beyond paralleling Trump and Hitler, nearly merging the two into different sides of a single, monstrous being, flanked by dollar signs and swastikas.
In an acrylic-and-collage painting on paper, “Cabinet of Horrors” (2017), a central dome with two flanking walls, like a triptych or expressionistic Capitol Building, is covered in rows of cock-faces — some reminiscent of Trump, others of skulls — juxtaposed with photographs of Trump and Hitler. A collaged caricature of Trump as a portly beauty contest winner is at the top of the dome, beneath an American flag.
The neon orange of the painting matches the color of the gallery walls. By painting the walls this color, Bernstein transforms the gallery from a space of contemplation to a state of emergency. The color also evokes Trump’s yellow hair and orange skin, and everything artificial and lurid about the man, his businesses, and his lifestyle.
Another 2017 “Cabinet of Horrors” painting, imposing at 94 x 94 inches and mostly black, yellow, and red (the colors of the German flag), solidifies the link between Trump and Hitler, money and death: a zombie-like Hitler stares out amid Trump-coiffed cock-faces projecting out from the center, with a skull planted in the lower left corner.
“Money Shot” (2017) transforms the US Treasury into a slot machine with an orange penis for a handle; Trump/Schlong Face hybrids as icons; and, instead of a payout slot, Bernstein has inserted another of her recurring motifs, a “cunt-faces” — an enraged vagina dentata doubling as a black hole. Swastikas and US dollar signs float in the top right corner, and on the left, a penis-shaped Capitol Building (or “jackpot,” as it is identified here) is captioned with the name Schlong Face.
Concomitant with her politics, the power of Bernstein’s work lies in her exquisite balance between rawness and sophistication. Her renderings are deft and confident; her colors pulsate. She expertly distorts and disfigures to conjure monstrosities, while economizing the pictorial space: Her compositions are perfectly balanced, mesmerizing even as the content repulses.
The acid humor of her earlier works continues to seethe, but the Trump paintings, in keeping with the man himself, are more atrocious and banal. Trump embodies Cockman not only because Cockman is a fitting metaphor for a man who has no moral compass whatsoever, but because Trump-Cockman’s sexuality is so bloodless that seduction becomes an act of necrophilia.
The beady, uneven eyes, and vile, bloody mouth of “Count Trump” (2017) exude depravity, while “Frankenschlong” (2017), an imbecilic Frankenstein with a mop of mangy hair, a scrotum-like chin, and a swastika tattooed on his forehead, signifies all of the base stupidity of Trump and his administration, cobbled together from conflicting interests and lies.
The juxtaposition of dollar signs and swastikas drives home Trump’s egoistic endgame in the painting “One Fool Dollar Bill” (2017), which again joins Trump and Hitler, money and fascism, and includes the text: “George Washington couldn’t tell a lie. Nixon couldn’t tell the truth. Trump can’t tell the difference.”
Bernstein doesn’t mince words. In an interview with artist Mickalene Thomas in the exhibition catalogue, she explains, “I am showing Trump for what he is: a fool, a monster, a jester, a racist. Donald Trump is a con-artist, using the White House as his own personal cash machine.”
The jester emerges in “Porky Pink” (2017), displayed below “One Fool Dollar Bill.” Bearing the text “Porky Jester” and “Schlong Face has Risen” in black and hot pink acrylic, the central image is a mutant Schlong Face, with multiple, Medusa-like cocks mimicking a jester’s cap.
And Schlong Face is not alone in his amorality. In “Putin Trump Money Shot” (2017), “Putin Schlong” and “Trumpen Schlong” face off with phallic missiles, which reprises the penis/weapon motif of Bernstein’s early work, such as the giant phallic screws of her Screw drawings; in “WW3” (2017), a confrontation between “Trumpen Schlong” and “Kim Jong-Un Schlong Face” results in an apocalyptic explosion, set off by men who can’t tell the difference between masturbation and penetration.
Cabinet of Horrors is an attack on Trump’s attack on America, a point the artist confirms with “Seal of Disbelief,” a spectacular, 96 x 96-inch presidential seal in which the word “God” is crossed out of “In God We Trust” and replaced with “Evil.” Bernstein’s small rewording gives voice to the anger and disappointment of millions of Americans, including those who don’t agree with her beliefs.
Ideally, the exhibition would travel around the country. For now, everyone who can see it, should, whatever their personal politics. It assaults vulgarity with vulgarity, but Bernstein’s assault is grounded in principles of social betterment. Anyone who wants to see the face of morality in Cabinet of Horrors can look on page one of the catalogue, at a photo of Judith Bernstein.
Judith Bernstein: Cabinet of Horrors continues at The Drawing Center (35 Wooster Street, Manhattan) through February 4.