Judith Bernstein Shines a Blacklight on Trump’s Crimes

We cannot ignore the fact that Americans voted for Trump.

Judith Bernstein, “President” (2017), acrylic and oil on canvas, 90 x 89 1/2 inches (all images courtesy the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery)

People pay to watch a real fuck. In the heyday of Times Square porn the “money shot” was developed to prove that the sex-on-film was real and not simulated. The proof? Cum. The (male) ejaculation onto the body of his co-star.

In her debut solo show at Paul Kasmin Gallery, Judith Bernstein unveils Money Shot, a series of large-scale paintings starring the Trump administration, its horrific present and terrifying potential future.

The gallery is outfitted with blacklight, which alters the paintings even during daytime hours. The works glow orange, green, violet, and acid yellow against pitch black. The unstable colors signal that nothing will ever look or be the same as it was before.

But, this isn’t the dark of night. This place is tinged with psychedelia. The distortions border on nauseating. The room spins as we stand still. We oscillate between terror and gut-busting laughter, as we witness what we once deemed unimaginable.

Judith Bernstein, “Money Shot – Blue Balls” (2017), acrylic and oil on canvas, 104 x 90 1/2 inches

Our eyes adjust at different speeds to the dark. There are those who are paralyzed and shocked, who expect a glowing exit sign to magically turn on. There are others who shut their eyes and hold tight to the belief that any frightful night can be slept through. For the many who remain comfortable in dim halos, whatever the condition, it’s business as usual. But there are also those who profit from concealment and a widespread loss of vision.

In Money Shot, Schlongface is an omnipresent demagogue. The character (similar to Cockman, who debuted in Bernstein’s works of the 1960s) has a cock and balls for a face. Schlongface is meant to represent Trump, but the figure can be spliced into innumerable moments of history. He is the pathetic villain, the dictator whose rampant destruction betrays both his predilection for rape and impotence.

What hits you on the nose feels like a kick to the crotch. The seriousness of these political and psychosexual implications, told through tongue-in-cheek (or cock-and-nose) wordplay and humor, are important themes in Bernstein’s work. In her impactful scale, enraged mark-making, and caricature, there is never an either/or. There are only contradictory couplings. Laugh. But fear.

Judith Bernstein, “In Evil We Trust” (2016), acrylic and oil on canvas, 105 x 230 inches

“In Evil We Trust” (2017) places Schlongface in a jester’s cap-and-bells next to a mushroom cloud. The floating cock nearly outsizes the explosion. At the bottom of the painting, written in black block letters is the official United States motto, “IN GOD WE TRUST,” in which “GOD” is crossed out and replaced by “EVIL.” This punk and feminist move harkens Bernstein’s history of using men’s bathroom graffiti as a cultural barometer. In America, what traditionally have been opposing sentiments – god and money – are rendered as interchangeable. Economics and even nuclear war are seen as deeply engrained in a god-created order. Bernstein plays with the words and sentiments politicians use to motivate and manipulate.

A vagina dentata is blasted away by the nuclear explosion. Conspiratorial folklore about vaginas with teeth, that cause bloody castration, are also characters with doubled significance in Money Shot. This vaginal monstrosity — emblematic of the “pussy grabs back” rallying cry — can stand as a placeholder for the women who voted for and continue to support Trump (and the other Schlongfaces of the world). The vagina that bites itself ends up a casualty of the ensuing explosion.

In “President” (2017), Schlongface seems to merge with a foreshortened female figure whose legs are spread-eagle in the foreground. The figure’s crotch is stamped with the US Presidential Seal – with an asshole like a target beneath it. The political and psychosexual dynamic of Bernstein’s work turns on the complexities derived by the receiver.

Judith Bernstein, “Money Shot – Green” (2016), acrylic and oil on canvas, 94 x 94 inches

The question is “Did we want this?” It appears that we did. Despite allegations of Russian collusion, we cannot ignore the fact that Americans voted for Trump. Blaming enemies from afar ignores the truly troubling way fascism emerges — from within — which disarms us from doing anything about it. In “Money Shot – Shooters” and “Money Shot – Blue Balls” (both 2017) Trump, Putin and Kim Jong-un launch cock screw forms at each other. Trump is not portrayed as a puppet. He is a participant in the exchange of totalitarian machinations.

“Money Shot – Green” and “Money Shot – Yellow” (both 2016) hybridize the Capitol Building with a slot machine. Three Schlongfaces wearing swastika-adorned fool’s caps have hit the jackpot. The hybrid structures recall one of the election’s many ironies, that on the campaign trail Trump cited his Atlantic City casino ventures as examples of how he does business — essentially cluing us into his intentions to profit from a failing business and let the loss fall on others. The money in the money shot.

Judith Bernstein, “Money Shot – Yellow” (2016), acrylic and oil on canvas, 104 x 90 1/2 inches

Blacklight illuminates what is concealed from the naked eye: the evidence of a crime. In Money Shot, this applies to the paintings, ourselves, and each other. As we look at the work, glowing stains appear on our clothes. We smile and our teeth beam white-hot.

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear
And he shows ‘em pearly white…

“Mack the Knife,” the song about a knife-wielding murderer, originally written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill for their collaboration, The Threepenny Opera (1928), became a pop sensation in the United States by the singer Bobby Darin (1959).

Fancy gloves, oh, wears old MacHeath, babe
So there’s never, never a trace of red

Turning a brutal tale of murder into feel-good all American pop engages what the country runs on: a brilliant cover story. We all have blood on our hands. The question of what is real or simulated, in regard to Trump, his campaign, administration, and history as a ‘reality star’ have all dissonantly merged. He is the “Trump Genie” (2016), out of his bottle. However, we ought to remember that in America, both cowboys and clowns have a history of murder. Violent crime and pop culture are what blacklight reveals in our psyche. Where one ends and the other begins in the Trump administration is what Judith Bernstein’s rage and humor thrusts into view.

Judith Bernstein, “Money Shot – Shooters (2017), acrylic and oil on canvas, 97 1/2 x 200 5/8 inches

Money Shot becomes performative as the artist leads by example: her process involves painting in natural light, then revealing the result to herself under blacklight during the gallery installation — relinquishing, to a certain extent, complete control of the final outcome (a difficult task for an artist to do).

She inserts herself into the work with her signature, looming as large as the names of “Putinschlong” and “Kim Jong-Unschlong” in “Money Shot – Shooters” and “Money Shot – Blue Balls.” Her signature, which she has turned into mural-sized drawings, has become a form of self-portraiture – taking into account her own ego and equating it with the ego of monsters. In Money Shot, Judith Bernstein comes face to face with the collective disbelief we felt on election night and then again on Inauguration Day. The destabilizing, immobilizing shock of the dark that we have to force ourselves to see our way through.

Judith Bernstein: Money Shot continues at Paul Kasmin Gallery (293 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 3.

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