Gasligting Forever. Is there a typo in this transcription of the title for Judith Bernstein’s show — should it read, rather, “Gaslighting?” No! Bernstein means “gasligting.” For, as the gallery announcement explains, by intentionally misspelling the word, removing the ‘h’ in the title, the artist wants viewers to “momentarily question their own sanity.” I know of no better account of the net expressive effect, a curious combination of feigned terror and real visual pleasure, which is consistently provided by her art. You’d have to be seriously crazy not to momentarily question your sanity when viewing this show.
In interviews Bernstein loves to relate how, as a graduate student in studio art at Yale University in the 1960s, the graffiti in the men’s restrooms inspired her to make her aggressive paintings of cocks and cunts, the bravely pioneering feminist works that made her famous. Fair enough — these sources do matter. And visual shock has always been important to her. But what also must be said is how skilled and precise an artist she is. I grant that “Death of the Universe #1” (2018), which is 12 1/2 by 14 feet, catches your eyes even from outside the gallery, when you are still standing on 28th Street. But once you stop to look, you will see that the high-pitched orange-reds, the thrusting, black-edged lines of blue, and the artificial, glowing greens are perfectly poised. As a colorist, Bernstein deserves comparison with André Derain in his Fauve landscapes or Frank Stella in his acrylic Protractor series (1967–71). Seen under black light, this image of the death of the universe is spectacular. What a cheerful way for everything to go!
“Gaslighting (Red)” (2019), a smaller painting, which also is visible from the street, to the left of “Death of the Universe,” portrays what looks like a boxing match between three male and two female grotesquely simplified cartoon figures. In this war scene presented in solid and pale reds the title appears in yellow block letters. Imagine one of Philip Guston’s paintings of Nixon, but done in strident neon color, or an image by Peter Saul depicting the battle of the sexes, and you would have some sense of what’s going on here. Or recall Francis Bacon’s agonized figures. But where those artists show grotesquely distorted bodies, the whole body doesn’t interest Bernstein. Rather, here, as in her earlier work, she focuses on representations of the genitals. On the third gallery wall, “Gaslighting #2” (2021), which faces “Gaslighting (Red),” offers a different composition, setting the intense, wide green lines against a black background filled with detached floating body parts that seem almost lost in the void.
In his famous essay “The Metaphysics of Sexual Love” (1844), the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer remarks that sexual love “is the ultimate goal of almost all human life …. Every day it brews and hatches the worst and most perplexing quarrels and disputes, destroys the most valuable relationships, and breaks the strongest bonds.” And then, after completing this long, aggressively pessimistic description, he asks: “Why all this noise and fuss?” In fact, he argues, speaking elliptically (Schopenhauer feared censorship), all that’s involved in physical love “is merely a question of every Jack finding his Jill.” This is to say that instinct rules life and creates illusions, he posits, “since for nature the interest of the species takes precedent over all others.” Hence the inescapable human propensity for endless war and sexual strife. The real essence of the world is the will, which means that eternal struggle is inescapable. It’s no wonder that both Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud found this account curiously suggestive. Rejecting the traditional philosophical focus on the mind, Schopenhauer urges us to attend to the body. And then, as if in uncanny anticipation of Bernstein’s art, he says that “the genitals are the real focus of the will.”
Anytime you view art in the New York, you cannot but compare the works you see indoors in the galleries to the aggressive street art that is omnipresent in lower Manhattan. Bernstein turns graffiti into painting, taking what Joachim Pissarro and I have called “wild art,” artistic sources from outside the art world, and using them to create an intense visual response in the gallery. Schopenhauer believed that we might escape the will under the spell of beauty by being able to “quietly contemplate, as pure, will-less” subjects while also “knowing those very objects so terrible to the will.” In aesthetic experience, detached from the endless striving of the will, we can — so he thought — enjoy looking at representations of the visual world. Bernstein ups the ante, for not the least of her achievements is to make arresting paintings whose subjects are so intimately linked to the will. And thus, perhaps to her surprise, she is a true philosopher-painter. (I’ll bet this is the first time Bernstein has been compared with Nicolas Poussin, who often is called the philosopher-painter!) She is a great artist whose boldly original paintings forcefully respond to the troubled life of our present culture.
Judith Bernstein: Gasligting Forever continues at Kasmin Gallery (514 West 28th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through January 8, 2022.
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