It has become cliché to open a review with reference to one of the many crises in liberal democracy – and in so doing make a tenuous claim for art’s (and art critics’) ability to pass meaningful comment upon them – but is sometimes unavoidable. So, here goes: the 45th president of the United States is a quasi-fascist conman exploiting the world’s most powerful political office for his own ends; his nuclear brinksmanship is an expression of insecurity in his own sexual potency; he is, in short, a shrivelled cock-and-balls dripping with ejaculatory fluid. This is in the paintings of Judith Bernstein, I should make clear.
At Paul Kasmin, eight new largescale works by the veteran feminist artist are lit from above by ultraviolet lights that pick out the phosphorescent pigments – screaming pinks, livid yellows and virulent reds – in which they are executed. The disembodied head of Donald Trump, rendered in the style of Giuseppe Arcimboldo on a particularly nightmarish trip, is the suite’s dominant motif: a floating scrunch of penis and testicles in a swastika-patterned cap’n’bells. That the president is repeatedly captioned ‘schlongface’ or ‘Trumpenschlong’ and in Money Shot – Blue Balls (2017) fires impotent spunk missiles at busts of ‘Putinschlong’ and ‘Kim Jong-unschlong’ makes a pretty unambiguous point about masculine power and the neuroses underpinning it.
The paintings’ ghoulish glow-in-the-dark effects are, when I visit, diminished by the daylight that pours through the gallery’s floor-to-ceiling windows. When the sun hides behind a cloud, however, the space is transformed into a dingy underground club, linking these new paintings to Bernstein’s formative interest in the graffiti of men’s toilet stalls as insights into the male subconscious. The transformation begs the question of why the space wasn’t blacked out: perhaps to allow the slim possibility that the president might, in the course of being driven uptown to Trump Tower, catch a glimpse of himself as a pouting, impotent and pointedly feminine dictator in Money Shot – Shooters (2017)? A more likely explanation is that the artist wanted these agitprop paintings to be visible through the windows to passersby in order to serve their function as denouncements of, and incitements against, the administration.
Sledgehammer-subtlety is thus a strength rather than a weakness of works such as Money Shot – Green (2016), which reimagines the Capitol as a one-armed-bandit whose three reels have come up Trumps, over which an erect penis sprays dollar signs and swastikas. The message is designed to shock – and to incite anger that might lead to action – rather than as a sober contribution to the proverbial ‘marketplace of ideas’ in which it seems racism and misogyny are now up for reasoned discussion. Bernstein’s latest work is a deliberately crude expression of a sophisticated intellectual tradition: the titular allusion to pornographic filmmaking chimes with fellow Second Wave feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, who argued that its normalisation is symptomatic of the oppression of women in contemporary society. That the conflation of money, power and male domination is best expressed through the iconography of sexual violence should, these days, come as no surprise.
Judith Bernstein: Money Shot, Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York, 18 January – 3 March 2018
From the April 2018 issue of ArtReview