New York

Judith Bernstein, HOOVER COCK, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 84 × 84".

Judith Bernstein, HOOVER COCK, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 84 × 84".

Judith Bernstein

Mary Boone Gallery | Chelsea

Judith Bernstein, HOOVER COCK, 2016, acrylic on canvas, 84 × 84".

Judith Bernstein doesn’t mince words—or symbols. Her solo exhibition “Dicks of Death” at Mary Boone Gallery, curated by Piper Marshall, featured a wealth of phallic imagery, from scatological cock-faces and engorged missiles to handsomely forbidding screws. Part of an ongoing rediscovery of a prolific and extraordinary artist who was overlooked for decades, this show paired a selection of Bernstein’s early works with recent paintings to focus on her sharp appraisal of US foreign policy. Fueled by a potent mix of castrating ridicule and antiwar rage, her critique is rendered in the most bellicose visual terms—that is, in the vernacular of men’s-room graffiti.

As a graduate student at Yale in the 1960s, she was inspired by the ubiquitous dick drawings and homosocial musings produced by her classmates as they used the toilet. Works from this period filled the back gallery, with Bernstein’s large mixed-media painting UNION JACK-OFF, 1967, the centerpiece. On its background of dingy stripes, two veiny red dicks made from bunched-up canvas spew white paint. Another dick stands upright, holding a little US flag in its urethra. Two more are flaccid; one trails off the canvas like a long tube of shit and rests like a dead limb on the floor. Yellow text perks up the carnage: UNION JACK-OFF ON U.S. POLICY IN VIET (Bernstein ran out of space to scrawl “NAM”). While she amplifies the antigovernment sentiment of her men’s-room source material in such pieces, she also brings to light the anonymous authors’ private, maybe unconscious, perception of the war’s underlying sexual sadism. Their unfiltered emissions become ammunition for a rhetorical counterviolence. Bernstein’s painterly ejaculations are exuberant sexual defilements of the enemy (the flag, the war, the man) that mock both patriarchal nihilism and the impotent rebellion it provokes.

Artaudian action painting gives way to incendiary Minimalism in her ’70s work. The long east wall of the main gallery displayed her breathtaking SEVEN PANEL VERTICAL, 1973–78, a suite of monumental screw drawings. The seven iterations of her acerbic visual pun are composed of tiny, energetic marks, charcoal squiggles like pubes or spermatozoa that, from a distance, lend the giant phallic forms a sense of movement. In contrast to the ominous stasis of Lee Lozano’s hardware, these screws vibrate as well as turn. Bernstein’s repetition of both big and small gestures parallels her career-spanning critique of male supremacy. She digs at its minutiae (the sexist insults and injuries of everyday life) as well as its geopolitical devastation—from the carpet-bombing, napalm attacks, and civilian massacres in Vietnam to the drone warfare and neoliberal militarism of today. The persistence of imperialist violence prompts a correspondingly obstinate critique: On the gallery’s other walls, new paintings echo old ones.

STAR SPANGLED BONER and DICKS OF DEATH, both 2015, refer back to vintage works like UNION JACK-OFF. They’re triumphant mixed-media eyesores literalizing the obscenity of nationalism with their combination of stars, stripes, and pulpy, jizzing warhead-dicks. HOOVER COCK, 2016, is a near replica of her painting LAMF, 1966. The new painting, like its predecessor (which is not on view), features a big blue cock-and-balls pictograph at its center, surrounded by graffiti text. But in place of a Vietnam reference, brown paint smeared along the bottom spells out ISIS AND US CIRCLE JERK, landing us squarely in the apocalyptic present. In the upper left, Bernstein handwrites a joke. A mortician, unable to close Mr. Smith’s coffin due to the corpse’s huge hard-on, calls his widow for advice. “Why don’t you cut it off and stick it up his ass?” she replies. “That’s the on[ly] hole in town it hasn’t been in.” How refreshing to find Bernstein, now in her seventies, undaunted by art-world vagaries, holding strong to her ever-apropos critique of phallocratic madness. “Dicks of Death” showed her still jacking off on the capitalist death drive with a timeless, up-your-ass cool.

Johanna Fateman