A philosopher-painter for troubled times
Gasligting forever. Is there a typo in this transcription of Judith Bernstein’s show title – should it instead read “Gaslighting?” ” No! Bernstein means “gasligting”. Because, as the gallery’s ad explains, by intentionally misspelling the word, removing the “h” from the title, the artist wants viewers to “momentarily question their own sanity.” I know of no better account of the crisp expressive effect, a curious combination of feigned terror and real visual pleasure, which is constantly provided by his art. You would have to be really crazy not to momentarily question your sanity while watching this show.
In interviews, Bernstein likes to relate how, as a graduate student in art studio at Yale University in the 1960s, the graffiti in the men’s bathroom inspired her to do her aggressive paintings of cocks and pussies. , the courageous and pioneering feminist works that made her famous. Fair enough – these sources matter. And visual shock has always been important to her. But what must also be said is how an artist that she is. Granted, “Death of the Universe # 1” (2018), which measures 12 1/2 by 14 feet, catches your eye even from outside the gallery, when you’re still standing on 28th Street. But once you stop to look, you’ll see that the sharp orangey reds, the vivid blue lines with black edges, and the artificial, shiny greens are perfectly balanced. As a colourist, Bernstein deserves the comparison with André Derain in his tawny landscapes or Frank Stella in his acrylic Reporter series (1967-1971). Seen in black light, this image of the death of the universe is spectacular. What a joyful way for everything to go!
“Gaslighting (Red)” (2019), a smaller painting, which is also visible from the street, to the left of “Death of the Universe”, depicts what looks like a boxing match between three male and two female characters from grotesquely simplified cartoons. In this war scene presented in solid, pale reds, the title appears in yellow capital letters. Imagine one of Philip Guston’s paintings of Nixon, but done in a strident neon color, or an image by Peter Saul depicting the battle of the sexes, and you would get an idea of what is going on here. Or remember the anguished figures of Francis Bacon. But where these artists show grotesquely deformed bodies, the whole body is of no interest to Bernstein. On the contrary, here, as in her previous work, she focuses on representations of the genitals. On the third gallery wall, “Gaslighting # 2” (2021), which faces “Gaslighting (Red)”, offers a different composition, placing the intense and wide green lines on a black background filled with floating body parts. loose 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 he brews and hatches the worst and most confusing quarrels and differences, destroys the most precious relationships and breaks the strongest bonds. And then, after finishing this long, aggressively pessimistic description, he asks, “Why all the noise and commotion?” In fact, he argues, speaking elliptically (Schopenhauer feared censorship), anything involved in physical love “is just a matter of each Jack finding his Jill.” That is to say that instinct governs life and creates illusions, he poses, “since for nature the interest of the species takes precedence over all others”. Hence the inescapable human propensity for endless war and sexual conflicts. The real essence of the world is willpower, which means that eternal struggle is inescapable. No wonder Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud found this story oddly suggestive. Rejecting the traditional philosophical focus on the mind, Schopenhauer urges us to deal with the body. And then, as in a strange anticipation of Bernstein’s art, he says that “the genitals are the real one. focus determination.
Whenever you look at art in New York City, you can only compare the works you see inside the galleries to the aggressive street art that is ubiquitous in lower Manhattan. Bernstein turns graffiti into painting, taking what Joachim Pissarro and I have called “wild art,” artistic sources outside of the art world, and using them to create an intense visual response in the gallery. Schopenhauer believed that we could escape the will under the spell of beauty by being able to “contemplate quietly, like pure subjects, without will” while “knowing these same objects so terrible to the will”. In aesthetic experience, detached from the endless effort of the will, we can, he thought, take pleasure in looking at representations of the visual world. Bernstein raises the bar because the least of his achievements is to produce striking paintings whose subjects are so intimately linked to the will. And so, perhaps to her surprise, she is a true philosopher-painter. (I bet this is the first time Bernstein has been compared to Nicolas Poussin, who is often referred to as the philosopher-painter!) She is a great artist whose boldly original paintings respond forcefully to the troubled life of our current culture.
Judith Bernstein: Gasligting Forever continues at the Kasmin Gallery (514 West 28th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until January 8, 2022.
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