Many Works, One Piece
Martin Bernstein’s deeply personal show at the Weston Gallery is not for minimalists
Review By Jane Durrell
Gorgeous is only the half of it — and the other half might drive you nuts. Martin Bernstein’s solo show, A Personal Odyssey, runs up and down the artist’s memory lane, spewing trinkets as it goes, in a manner witty, imaginative, ably executed and sometimes tiring in the extreme.
Bernstein, now based in Chicago, was born and grew up in Cincinnati. One series, on the back wall of the Weston Gallery’s north room, refers specifically, if obliquely, to that experience.
Reading left to right it begins with “Umbilical,” an inch-thick rope, moving on to “Butterfly,” which incorporates among other things his parents’ picture when they were young, then a gable-shaped assemblage called “Artist Ascension” and various other pieces culminating with “N’Orleans Overlook.” Almost everything on the wall, his parents’ picture excepted, is spatter-painted, tied together, worked over, altered and distressed, becoming a pretty coherent whole.
Bernstein has said of this show, “The installation itself is a piece. All my work is one piece.” The north wall gathering illustrates his meaning, as hardly any of these works were made in the same year. The earliest (1985) is actually the one that closes the line of thought, and “Artist Ascension,” the key to it all, is so recent that its date is this year.
But let’s get back to “gorgeous.” Another facet of Bernstein’s work can be seen in relatively recent paintings on paper and less recent but related paintings on wood panels as well as in pinch-pleated, paint-layered draperies that set off “Angel Flight,” a slender assemblage rising floor to ceiling in the south gallery. Surface is everything in these works, uneven, scratched, torn but glowing. Gold is the predominate color, with all the richness that implies, set off by hints of pink, turquoise, blue, even browns.
Most of the paintings on paper are under glass, putting distance between them and the viewer to suggest both fragility and significance, the artist says. My favorite piece in the exhibition, however, is the one of these paintings on paper that’s not under glass.
“De-Kleining Blue,” a punning title that can be ignored if you wish, is blue and gold so layered, distressed and coupled in on itself that it takes on antiquity despite its current date (2006). It could be a map of unknown lands or of the heavens or perhaps some splendid amalgamation of the two. Doesn’t matter — it’s enough just to look at it.
These paintings on paper are foreshadowed by “Johnson’s Flag” (1984) and “Kimono” in the south gallery, which Bernstein tinkered with off and on from 1982 to 1992. The latter work is made up of rectangular boxes arranged to approximate, in an askew manner, a kimono’s geometry. But its surface, layered in precious color, scarred, broached to hint of darkness within, is its reason for being. “Johnson’s Flag” has a similar surface in its upper portion, but the lower panels are finished off in entirely different brush strokes, a manner not seen elsewhere in the exhibition.
In contrast to the controlled opulence of these paintings on paper, wood and fabric, the ideas in pieces like “Quality” (2006) seem to have gotten out of hand. The title comes from neon tube letters, which blessedly do not turn on, embedded at top among painted-over gloves, pearls, feathers, an electric cord plug and other flotsam from an accumulating life. The centerpiece of the work is a pair of oval hand mirrors set aslant but blurrily bringing the viewer into the piece.
“Quality” hangs on the wall, but many of the works stand on their own. A chair, “Throne,” is encrusted with the feathered remains of an exotic bird, a decorated conch shell and other articles. It even has, at rear, its own train.
Another chair wears high-heeled pumps on its two front legs. One rather splendid transformation involves a child’s wagon and a headless torso, “Warrior Astride Her Steed.”
There are lamps aplenty: table lamps, hanging lamps, full-scale chandeliers. These are so fraught with everything from hanging beads to unidentifiable objects that I turned with relief from their lighted presence to “Buddha Mommy,” in which a Buddha’s head has been fitted out with bulb screwed on at top and cord wound round below. But the bulb can’t illuminate because, like the Buddha head, it’s painted over in opaque multi-colors, and anyway the cord has no plug. Aha? Is that the plug from “Quality?”
Bernstein keeps himself in check in making delicate, distinctive jewelry, but other bibelots, certainly when seen en masse, are over-wrought and excessive. That said, I liked “Red Red Rooster,” a red glass vase wittily transformed into a rooster with ivory-backed brush as its comb, a shell eye, and iron finial for tail, and I was interested and amused by the feathered purse called “Nest.”
In the south gallery, almost hidden behind the confusion of chandeliers, is a fanciful success, “Exit Door Installation.” The mandatory EXIT door is surrounded and transformed by junkyard-baroque of great imagination and delight. Gestural swirls, for instance, turn out on close inspection to be cast-off belts.
This exhibition is not for minimalists. If your preference is clean lines and spare shapes, your response could be the same as the person who said to me, “I had to get out of there.” Claustrophobia notwithstanding, the show is worth a discriminating look. Despite Bernstein’s feeling that all his work comprises one piece, individual increments might be more satisfying. Grade: B-
A PERSONAL ODYSSEY is on view at the Aronoff Center’s Weston Art Gallery through March 26
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