Jennifer Bornstein, Judith Bernstein, and Frances Starkby David Carrier
GAVIN BROWN’S ENTERPRISE | MARCH 1 – APRIL 19, 2014
For West Wall, Dwan Main Gallery (1967), a now classic exhibition presented in 2008 at Peter Blum, Chelsea, William Anastasi photographed an empty gallery, silkscreened that image onto a slightly smaller canvas, and installed that work on the wall, making “the wall . . . a kind of ready-made mural,” thus changing “every show in that space thereafter.” Jennifer Bornstein aggressively reworks that basic conceit in a three-person show at Gavin Brown Enterprise with her monotype prints of the gallery space, creating oil-based ink images attached to the high gallery walls. But where Anastasi represented the entire wall, covering the source of his images, Bornstein fragments hers, taking her print sources from the gallery’s floor, window, ceiling beams, heating vents, and cracks.
Frances Stark’s 7:20 video installation, “Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention Is Free” (2013), which draws upon her friendship with Bobby, a rap artist, projects lyrics based upon the music of West Coast gangsta rapper DJ Quik (née David Blake) on a gigantic wall mural accompanied by over 80 images. Five take-away posters, supplemented by a booklet, “Trapped in the VIP,” (2014) interpret this display in which Stark narrates her friendship with Bobby. The video includes images of Bobby and other rappers, some now deceased, images of the colonialist history of America, photographs of Stark, and representations of old master paintings.
In between the galleries occupied by Bornstein and Stark is a roomful of Judith Bernstein’s “Birth of the Universe” oil based works on canvas—marvelous paintings made using fluorescent rich oil paint that glow under black lights. (On request, the gallery turned off these lights, which indeed increased the paintings’ effect.) Here we see female and male genitalia wildly engaged in their life-generating activities. These terminally raunchy images—upscale toilet graffiti released from the unconscious—depict, and here I quote Bernstein, “the origin of space, time, and infinity, using the rage of the active cunt as the primal source in the expanding universe.” The belligerent frankness of these beautiful ‘in-your-face’ paintings is stunning. I wonder what the critics who used to complain that Dubuffet’s women were aggressive will make of her imagery.
As a whole, these three female artists offer powerful displays, yet the unity of the work still posed a quandary. As I mused over this conundrum, my mind flashed back to a text I’d not read for years, Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905). Sublimation, he writes, which is required “for every kind of cultural achievement” involves the “diversion of sexual instinctual forces from sexual aims and their direction to new ones—a process which deserves the name of ‘sublimation’.” Beauty, he suggests, is itself a product of sublimation. Art making involves the delimitation of our powers of aggression. When I read Freud, a strange thought came to mind.
If we look for some common feature of these works, then we will be puzzled: what has Bornstein’s deconstruction of the gallery space to do with Bernstein’s upscale appropriations of graffiti and Stark’s video? But if we set them against the history of art in light of Freud’s account, then their relationship might come into focus. Consider this group show as rather a three-part exhibition: ‘Sublimation and its Discontents.’ Bornstein’s images physically dismantle the gallery; Bernstein populates it with crude bathroom imagery; and Stark undercuts the usual distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. The belligerent attack on the space itself, coupled with the introduction of crude, inartistic body imagery and the incorporation of aggressive materials from commercial art, suggest these three gestures have much in common. I have no idea whether this conception was in the mind of Gavin Brown, but it does, I believe, provide a suggestive way of understanding this display, which was engaging, indeed enthralling. How varied the art of these three contemporary artists! And what a great challenge it offers art writers.
Sources: Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, (Santa Monica: Lapis Press, 1986), 34; Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on Sexuality in The Standard Edition (London: Hogarth Press, 1953), VII, 178.
DAVID CARRIER is co-author with Joachim Pissarro of Wild Art (Phaidon, 2013). His next books, with Joachim Pissarro, are Aesthetics of the Margins / The Margins of Aesthetics and Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll.