by Jonathan Griffin
The Box, Los Angeles
In the Bible, Judith was a beautiful and fearless Israelite widow who saved her besieged people from the army of King Nebuchadnezzar, which was led by the general Holofernes. She prayed to God to make her a good liar, then inveigled her way into the enemy camp where she hacked off Holofernes’s head after he tried to have sex with her.
On the roll-up gate in front of The Box, someone has painted the name ‘Judith’ in giant looping script, repeated over itself with manic intensity. The signature is the calling card of the indomitable artist Judith Bernstein, a zero-fucks-given riposte to the mannered quasi-subversive street art along Traction Avenue – where The Box is located – in Los Angeles’ dubiously designated Arts District.
Bernstein gives her Biblical namesake a run for her money in the insurrectionist stakes. The work with which her exhibition Cock in the Box shares its title, a vigorous charcoal and pastel drawing from 1966, greets visitors in the foyer: it shows an engorged penis springing out of a Stars-and-Stripes-patterned box. ‘AMERICA’S NUMBER 1 TOY’ reads her inscription, as if in promotion of the device. Bernstein has told how she would make her male friends stand guard outside male toilets in the 1960s while she studied the graffiti inside. Her research was both aesthetic and sociological, and has informed her work ever since.
In 1966 Bernstein was 24, and filled with righteous ire at the intersection of the United States’ violent foreign policy and the sexual violence embedded in the psyche of the American male. The newest work in the exhibition, a maximalist painting in fluorescent oils titled Birth of the Universe: The Voyeurs (2014) shows that the years have diminished none of her anger, even if her sense of humour may have sharpened. A screaming vagina dentata floats in deep space, while arrayed cocks and eyeballs point towards its centre as if caught in its force field. Numerical notations relate to integers of personal significance to the artist (18, for instance, is lucky in Judaism) alongside the recurrent 13.82, the age of the universe in billions.
Bernstein’s calling out of ‘the voyeurs’ in this painting of deep time is ambiguous given the pleasure she herself clearly takes in looking, especially at illicit subjects. Cock in the Box does a fine job of charting a course between 1966 and 2014 that reveals a side of the artist less inclined to furious expressionism, and more to slow, even meditative, analysis. A row of 18 square paintings of anthurium flowers, done between 1981 and 1984, spans one wall. The common houseplant – whose waxy red spathe and luridly projecting spadix make it impossible not to associate with both female and male genitalia – is painted by Bernstein from the same angle in each picture, abstracted almost to the point of modesty.
Across the room, a group of charcoal and graphite drawings from 1968 and 1970 describe one of Bernstein’s enduring motifs, the roundhead screw – a visual but also linguistic euphemism. These drawings are cooler, almost technical, and given her commitment to the subject (Hardware #1, #5 and #6 are featured here, all 1970), they reflect not just her pleasure in looking, but in representing too. This exhibition, a survey of an artist known for her dogged tenacity, reveals her as an artist of wider range than is often recognised.
First published: Art Review, April 2017