New York

Judith Bernstein

Mitchell Algus Gallery

Those familiar with Judith Bernstein’s work tend to know it for only one reason—its role in a fiasco. Horizontal, 1973, her charcoal drawing of a screwlike penis (or a penile screw?), was infamously withheld from a Museum of the Philadelphia Civic Center exhibition titled “Women’s Work: American Art 1974,” sparking protests from fellow artists and reducing Bernstein to the status of a lightning rod. Whether because of this incident or not, she has skirted the art world’s fringes ever since, showing mostly in group exhibitions. Her last solo effort in New York was in 1984 at women’s collective and exhibition space A.I.R. Gallery. Since then, she’s become one of a slew of first-wave American feminist artists to slip through the canon’s cracks, something that “WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution” (currently on view at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center) gestures toward rectifying.

Like Lee Lozano, whose work has also experienced a recent resurgence in prominence, Bernstein isn’t subtle, particularly when it comes to her stand on war, on art-world chauvinism, and on phallocentrism in general. Comparisons with Lozano are inevitable, for iconographic reasons (each artist hits on the screw as the arch symbol of dumb masculinity) and also because of the rage that courses through Bernstein’s work. But where Lozano is scarily dark, Bernstein is caustically hilarious. The work of both artists is unapologetically blunt in dealing with the suppression and denigration of women by a culture that, although unexceptional in this regard, upholds and prizes the arrogant and the cocksure. Bernstein’s target in this riotous but relentlessly hostile exhibition of drawings from 1966 to the present is evident in a selection of her titles: Supercock, Balls Over Landscape, Jack Off On US Policy in Vietnam. The earliest works show a flying superhero, cape flapping, arms and dramatically supersize phallus extending into canvases that initially appear blank save for some scrawled handwriting. Bernstein’s focus shifts to something like a gleefully nasty antiwar message in the following year. Vietnam Garden, 1967, posits limp, mushroomlike cocks—spurting pathetic streams of stars from their tips, their bases enveloped by steel wool affixed to paper—as absurdist memorials to fallen soldiers, lives wasted by governmental warmongering.

In the 1970s, Bernstein developed a different tack, one that dispensed with her crassest humor and sloppiest execution and brought her even closer to Lozano, notably to the latter artist’s paintings and drawings of tools. Heroic size is used with venomous sarcasm. In drawings like Horizontal and One Panel Vertical (both 1979), dense thickets of manic scribbles crystallize into monumental images of cock-screws against starkly blank backgrounds. The twelve-foot-long Horizontal features Bernstein’s prominently scrawled name, satirizing a stereotypically self-aggrandizing male artist’s signature. Across the room was the show’s only new work: Signature, 2008, a frenetic, nearly nineteen-foot-long rendering on the gallery wall of the same iconic autograph.

Bernstein is easy to dismiss as overly crass or stiflingly negative; a nagging art historian might even argue that Lozano’s screws predate Bernstein’s by several years. But credit her with this: There is anger, conviction, stridency, and hilarity here—all qualities mostly (and miserably) absent from the contemporary scene. Like her kindred spirit Lozano, Bernstein follows her heart, especially when that heart is pissed off.

Nick Stillman