“Painting broke my heart…. but it also saved my life,” said Gerry Bergstein at his gallery talk on December 5th. A romantic and a realist, an avid fan of contemporary culture and a man whose visual references channel venerable old masters while tossing Philip Guston and Robert Crumb into the salad. Bergstein’s work softly grabs the viewer by the lapels and then turns up the volume. There is no “nice” world for artists, no genteel peace to be found and painting water lilies is not an option in the 21st century, although one senses that Bergstein wishes that it were.
Bergstein belongs to a generation of artists, writers, and filmmakers that include the likes of Larry David, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Neil Simon. Having sprouted from the intellectually fertile ground of ethnic neighborhoods of New York in the 1940s, this generation, while brilliant, simply cannot allow themselves to rest. They poke, they prod, they question and rock around the very clock of their existence. They love with a passion but are immediately suspicious of any speck of happiness, living their lives with a restlessness that is soothed only when they are making work about it. They believe that happiness cannot be trusted, peace is not available and the minute you believe otherwise, you will fall into a hole and die violently. Or worse, die quietly. Best to keep making work about the voices arguing in your head as a way of containing them, let them slug it out in a larger arena.
“This work is profoundly different,” said Arthur Dion, director of Gallery Naga who is showing Bergstein’s work for the second time. “The methodology of image making, the concerns, the questions his work asks. How can we commit to life if we are rotting away? What does it mean to incorporate art with love into ourselves?” Indeed.
It was no accident that Bergstein referred to one of the great existential plays, Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros,” while giving his talk. His concerns, while personal, are also of a universal nature, mining the big issues with a deep intelligence. But the rapid switch from the melancholic to the humorous comments directly on the tragicomic unfolding of human experience, allowing for joy, urging the viewer to keep on keeping on.
Bergstein has been painting trompe l’oeil images for many years, painting them so well that he found himself up against a wall. He turned his attention to photo collages that mimic his former work, explode off the wall, teeming with art history with crowds of experts all vying for a soap box to shout from. The figures are photographed, drawn, painted and glued, creating a cacophony of voices yelling at the image of Bergstein trying to paint on a non-too steady easel. His back is often to the viewer, looking like an orchestra conductor who lost control.
Yes, his off-stage smile at the loss of control, while still controlling, is what the angst appears to be about and Bergstein offers insight into frozen moments in his brain, presents them without artifice and with total “bare nekkid” human vulnerability. Mortality and the prudent use of time, mounds of art history that we carry around that must be acknowledged and honored, the speed with which new art emerges and demands attention, the stimulation of the Internet and the rapid wave of global culture…..aaargh. He has painted and photo collaged all of this.
“As Philip Guston said, my best painting is my worst enemy,” said Bergstein. “How to do it again, how to do it differently.”
"Gerry Bergstein: Elements of Style" is on view November 13 – December 19, 2009 at Gallery Naga.
A twenty year survey of Bergstein's work will be on view at the Danforth Museum of Art from November 21, 2009 through February 28, 2010.
All images are courtesy of the artist and Gallery Naga.
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