Gerry Bergstein

Stux Gallery

Gerry Bergstein is usually classed with a younger group of Boston figurative painters (Doug Anderson, Jon Imber) to whom he actually bears little relation. A seasoned artist in his early 40s, Bergstein's identity was formed under the mantle of Abstract Expressionism; he internalized Modernist angst through the traditional Picasso-to-Pollock lineage, absorbing along the way such third-generation influences as Gregory Amenoff.

Yet Bergstein has always had an alienating bent. If he has quoted the New York School's spatial organization and lush painterliness he has also mocked it, employing a form of ironic homage that is ubiquitous among the neo-Expressionists (therefore, the misplaced associations with this group). His separateness was further declared by a wild and disparate constellation of weird idiosyncratic symbols, a Freudian crazy quilt of conspicuous sexual tokens (flying hot dogs, torpedoes, and hero sandwiches standing in for the gents; floating boxes, pears, and slices of cherry pie representing the ladies). All of those cookie-cutter objects are still overwhelmingly present in his new paintings; however, Bergstein has infused this disjunctive imbroglio with a heretofore absent resolution, yet without sacrificing his familiar, even endearing, pandemonium. Ironically he has molded dissociation into communicative form.

Bergstein's conflict has always been interiorized, but it now transcends the subjective. Essentially, he pits Bergstein against Bergstein, yet the oppositional components of a private struggle—intellect versus carnality—allude to the central conflicts of Judeo-Christian culture. (A current manifestation of this is the hyperreaction to herpes and AIDS, popular foils for deeply ingrained fears of sexuality.) A child of the conservative '50s, Bergstein illustrates the frustration and guilt that result from sexual repression. Mind and body rage in such works as Thinking About the Unthinkable, 1985, a title we would expect, from a '60s standpoint, to refer to nuclear annihilation; instead, it refers to the fear of castration associated with masturbation.

Everywhere, the body is vulnerable and fragmented, as in the helplessly furious The Secret Life of Belly and Bone, 1985, in which a flaming heart is doused by a ludicrously tiny dimestore fireman embedded in the paint surface. Bergstein repeatedly paints himself into the picture, an observer of and a participant in anarchy A personification of the good/bad dialectic, he may sport lusty devil's horns or be enshrined beneath a beneficent halo (or is that the wide-brimmed hat of a Hasidic rabbi?). In The Secret Life of Belly and Bone the Bergstein persona watches aghast as his own tearful, bulging eyeball pops from his skull. This painting effectively catalogues his phantasmagoric vision of a psyche—and a world—flipped totally out of control, twisted by an obsolete yet prevalent morality that results in feelings of powerlessness and sorrow Paradoxically, this paralytic state is conveyed through rigorously controlled paint handling.

Bergstein uses the typically peculiar element of viscously painted birch logs as a central structuralizing motif in many of his paintings. Slashing through space, -they form Wassily Kandinsky-esque diagonals that define or negate the action, carving or transgressing a panoply of surfaces and scenarios. These architectonic analogs for order also burst into consuming flames, indicating passion's pervasive unpredictability.

Shot through with original consciousness, these paintings succinctly express the mayhem of an ego wrestling with a contradictory cultural heritage.

Nancy Stapen