Judith Bernstein, Birth of the Universe #33, 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 15' 6“ × 10' 2”.

Judith Bernstein, Birth of the Universe #33, 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 15' 6“ × 10' 2”.

Judith Bernstein

Judith Bernstein, Birth of the Universe #33, 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 15' 6“ × 10' 2”.

Over the course of a month long residency, Judith Bernstein produced in situ an exhilarating body of work she then exhibited under the title “Rising.” Two large-scale paintings and five drawings were shot through with the artist’s customary wit and full-on attitude: funny, provocative, and embarrassing in equal measure. Dominating the proceedings were the two enormous paintings, which contain a dizzying mix of futuristic imagery in which giant vulvas loom large and magnificent, surrounded by a floating sea of penises and graffiti-like symbols. One, Birth of the Universe #33 (all works 2014), made with fluorescent paint and illuminated by black light, glowered alone, unstretched and nailed directly to the wall in a separate room. These unashamedly feminist works offered a heady combination of violence and sex that found their apogee in the series of charcoal screw drawings that lined the main gallery. For these, Bernstein returned to her best-known motif of giant hardware screws that morph into erect, missile-like penises.

Bernstein made her first screw drawings in 1969 in angry protest of the escalating situation in Vietnam and of male aggression more generally. She produced a number of expletive-strewn and confrontational drawings in which cocks became bombs became screws. Bernstein’s screw drawings find a close parallel in Lee Lozano’s tool drawings and paintings from the early to mid-1960s, among them a large horizontal painting of a screw, its tip bulging indecently into a phallic shaft. Also relevant are the 1966–70 series of angry “sperm bomb” antiwar drawings of flying cock-plane-bombs by Nancy Spero, who would go on to be a cofounder with Bernstein of A.I.R. Gallery, New York’s first feminist cooperative exhibition space.

Bernstein’s work was frequently censored, and in the early 1970s she became an active member of the Fight Censorship Group. Remade today, the image of the aggressive, penetrating screw as a phallic symbol of sexual and political domination has lost none of its original charge. Bernstein draws her screws with thick, fast strokes to evoke comic-book go-fast swipes suggestive of a screw in motion. This technique also has the effect of making the screws look strangely hairy. Each drawing hung from a roll of paper, to which it remained attached, asserting its material status as a physical, bodily thing. Nearly identical, the drawings each showed a solitary screw. They lined the room in military order, mute and upright, standing silent sentinel over the enormous vagina painting on the far wall that they flanked, Golden Birth of the Universe.

In stark contrast to the screw drawings, the paintings contain explosive lines and a splatter of neon color. They unfold a dazzling psychedelic vision narrating the birth of the universe told from a female perspective—the big bang remade as Technicolor primal scene. The psychosexual collision of body parts, all flying cocks and “active cunts” (in Bernstein’s phrase), is as crudely rendered as the graffiti found in public bathrooms. Bernstein seizes upon the imagery of our dirty collective conscious, retooling sex organs as giant weapons of mass destruction.

Bernstein’s art is as outraged as it is outrageous. She has always recognized the political potential of humor, and the drawings are as formally funny as they are conceptually frightening. Though reiterating imagery that has been part of her repertoire for a long time, her new works are not simply nostalgic, recalling the earlier protest movements of which she was such an active participant. Rather, they offer a stark reminder of the continuing and all too contemporary conditions under which we live: a state of perpetual warfare, sexual inequality, and violence.

Jo Applin