Gerry Bergstein

Howard Yezerski Gallery

The trompe l’oeil self-portraits and grisaille “mound” paintings in Gerry Bergstein’s recent show testify to his growing understanding of the complicated, cathartic role of the contemporary narrative painter. In the former, the artist’s cluttered, darkly comic works include meticulously painted reproductions of black-and-white head-and-shoulders photographs of himself wearing various exaggerated facial expressions, a serial approach to identity familiar from the contorted character heads of eighteenth-century German sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt. The largest paintings in the series—all tall and thin, human-scale—were inspired by a vintage anatomical paper model complete with fold-out panels, which the artist found in a friend’s antique store. Self-Made Man, 2001, presents a cross-eyed and maniacally grinning Bergstein, his body plastered with trompe l’oeil photographs of himself and his father and faux postcards of works of art; he wields a thick brush that drips white paint against the scribbled-on chalkboard background. Bergstein’s bare shoulders are riddled with black holes, suggesting decaying fruit; a pencil appears near his shoulder pointing to his heart, where a portrait of his father floats next to an image of quintessential cartoon pop Homer Simpson. Carefully copied pictures of Gorky and his mother, Magritte’s perfidious pipe, and Vija Celmins’s celestial sky help complete the body of Bergstein’s “self-made” man, a rickety construction in which heroes of television, family, and art history are equally weighted.

Bergstein pursues darker concerns in his vaguely architectural black-and-white paintings of mounds. An amalgam of decaying mountain, medieval building, and phallus, the mound always appears to be imploding or exploding in these works, which resemble pencil drawings on damaged paper (here the artist etched lines into a prepared surface of black paint overlaid with white). For Mount, 2002, Bergstein moved his stylus back and forth across the highly detailed central form in strokes imitating the rhythmic gestures of a cellist. In the monumental Self-Portrait as Tower of Babel, 2002, the mound is under siege, pierced with luscious black holes; it begins to topple before a romantic cloudy sky. References to Leonardo’s Deluge drawings, Brueghel’s Tower of Babel, and Piranesi’s ruins abound in this anthropomorphic citadel, whose stony skin appears to be ripping apart. (It’s hard not to think of the World Trade Center as well.) Hidden among the gaps in the tower are self-portraits and other small images: insect caricatures, a paint tube, a Guston “eye,” a thumb, a rocket ship.

In these works Bergstein equates nature and culture with personal ambition and ideals. The mounds may posit civilization as a beautiful pile of garbage, but they also suggest Bergstein as existentialist antihero at the foot of his own mountain of ambition (his goal being to achieve global relevance while staying true to himself). As Albert Camus ends his Myth of Sisyphus: “This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Bergstein likewise transforms the torment of his struggle into victory.

Francine Koslow Miller