Critics’ Picks

FUN-GUN, 1967, bullets and acrylic on canvas, 57 x 60".

FUN-GUN, 1967, bullets and acrylic on canvas, 57 x 60".

New York

Judith Bernstein

Mitchell Algus Gallery
511 West 25th Street, 2nd Floor
January 10–February 9, 2008

Over the past five years, Mitchell Algus Gallery has been uncovering an often-censored and still-overlooked genre—what Lorraine O’Grady has described as the feminist “Prick Art” of the 1970s (Eunice Golden, Joan Semmel, Anita Steckel, and others). Judith Bernstein’s twelve drawings and collages assembled in Algus’s current exhibition reveal another dazzling contribution to this body of work.

Mockingly monumentalizing the erect penis, delighting in its seemingly endless possibilities of satirical association, Bernstein’s works proceed from a series of formal conflations: the penis as gun, screw, stylus. This train of association, which involves the collapse of the phallus and agents of physical violence and linguistic signification, is ancient and unsurprising, but Bernstein’s work articulates the premise particularly elegantly. Perhaps the most iconic piece in the exhibition is her 1967 relief FUN-GUN, a gently swollen stretched canvas, gridded with gold lines, in which an anatomical diagram of the male sexual organs merges with an ithyphallus emitting lead bullets.

The real political thrust of Bernstein’s work is, however, more nuanced than these visual puns. Combining graffiti, signatures, and flags with the Surrealist interest in automatic writing, Bernstein’s work suggests the role of the penis as an implement of endlessly territorial tagging. Many of her monumental screw drawings, executed on partially rolled paper reels, evoke sacred scrolls, as is the case with One Panel Vertical, 1979. Similarly, Bernstein uses aged paper with burned edges in Superzipper and Supergraffiti, two smaller drawings from 1966, both apparently inspired by inscriptions found in the men’s bathrooms at Yale University. In these pictures, tiny flying figures with enormous erections are surrounded by all kinds of embarrassing scrawl; they recall Cy Twombly’s graffiti paintings of the early 1950s but replace his invocations of Virgil and classical humanism with something more unequivocally unsublime (i.e., “There once was a boy from Nantucket / If his ear were a cunt he would fuck it . . .”).

Graffiti as the graphic mark of bravado, the residue of sexual and spatial invasion, is a trope of Bernstein’s work. In her 1967 collage Vietnam Garden, an ambiguous surface is covered by proliferating penises accented with steel wool and crowned with small American flags. This critique of US imperialism visually predicts the moon landing two years later—and the patently ridiculous gesture of planting an American flag on the no-man’s-land of the lunar surface. This “where my hand is set, my seal shall be” mentality suggests a conquistador’s drive to decorate all surfaces of the universe with the kind of sexual scribbles that adorn the men’s toilets. And Bernstein does not exempt herself or her art from these urges: Her mural Signature, 2008, created for this exhibition, consists of nothing but her own enormous autograph, the sign of her own seal setting and phallic conquest of the gallery.