Judith Bernstein’s work has always been brazenly in-your-face. In the early-to-mid 1970s the self-styled “proto-feminist” was best-known for her huge charcoal drawings of hairy, phallic screws, one of which was censored from a museum show in Philadelphia in 1974, despite a petition signed by Louise Bourgeois and John Coplans. A co-founder of the alternative gallery, A.I.R., which showed only female artists, she more or less disappeared from the art world until 2012, when the New Museum featured “Hard,” a show of her large-scale work, including a 66-foot long mural painted directly onto its lobby windows, followed by two shows at Mary Boone in 2015 and 2016.
As emphatically evidenced by her debut show at the Paul Kasmin Gallery, Money Shot, on view through March 3, those forty-something intervening years have done nothing to diminish Bernstein’s stance as a maverick provocateur–or her use of genitalia as a major motif. As canny as she is funny, Bernstein has found a perfect target for her angry art in our fake-news president, Donald Trump. Using an acid-tinged pop palette and sweeping gestural strokes, as well as a furious array of male and female private parts, Bernstein makes merry mincemeat of America’s leader, here graphically depicted as “Schlongface,” whose features consist, of course, of a cock and balls.
Bernstein had already taken some significant swings at Trump in Cabinet of Horrors, an October, 2017 solo show commissioned by The Drawing Center, which featured large-scale works on paper and murals. At Kasmin, she has dramatically upped the ante of her anti-Trump visual rant, with eight wall-size, black-lit pieces that are equal parts savage criticism and (literally—note the repeated vagina dentata) biting humor.
Money Shot, Shooters (2017) is the only painting to portray the head of “Trumpenschlong” with regular, rather than genital, features. But Bernstein compensates for that by framing his head with Kim Song-Un and his screw/syringe-like missile pointed at Trumpschlong on the left, and Putinschlong similarly taking aim on the right. The imagery is nothing if not bombastic.
Schlongface Has Risen (2016) incorporates the form of a huge orange-tinged One Fool Trillion dollar bill, complete with a schlongfaced figurehead and swastikas. Above this useless currency loom a Scream-like vagina dentata paired with a blue/green cock and balls.
U.S. currency is also referenced in In Evil We Trust, (2017) in which Schlongface wears a jester’s cap and is juxtaposed with a phallic-looking nuclear explosion–further armed with vaginal teeth and the presidential seal. In the simply titled President, the penis-headed leader spreads a pair of female legs, emblazoned with the words, “All American Spread Eagle,” to reveal the U.S. Presidential Seal. And in Trump Genie, (2016) a glowing Aladdin’s lamp topped with an American flag has unleashed a swastika-embellished schlonghead and a horrified vagina dentata.
Bernstein’s larger-than-life funhouse imagery is meant to shock and awe. And it does. The artist’s signature brand of high-octane caricature fittingly captures the mockery that has been made of American democracy. The black-lit lighting adds the final hallucinatory touch to this hellish vision of our present—yet still unthinkable–reality.
Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, (1998), published as an e-book in May, 2016; Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, (2014).