Exclusive: Judith Bernstein's Trailblazing Genital Paintings

Tucked away in a crowded lofty studio on Canal Street is Judith Bernstein, acclaimed feminist painter, icon and all around badass. She’s been in the space since the beginning, working endlessly on her graffiti influenced paintings that have been displayed everywhere from infamous NYC gallery Gavin Brown’s Enterprise to contemporary artist Paul McCarthy’s home.

With a career that spans over 40 years, Bernstein is finally getting the attention she deserves. When she first started creating her feminist and protest pieces, many thought her work was too ahead of its time and too risky due to their often graphic nature. But popular opinion has changed with the times, and now her work is being lauded for the same themes and concepts that Bernstein was exploring decades ago. But for now she’s going back to basics, finally experimenting with paint on canvas.

“My work is very loud and direct and I want it that way,” she tells me as we explore her studio. She points at one of her latest pieces and I am confronted with a large painting of a vagina with teeth. “It’s a C*ntface,” she informs me with a proud smile.

Bernstein loves to use the C-word. “It’s the last bastion of crudity. I don’t know if you can write that, but I love to say it.” Her vernacular, much like her work, is brash but liberating. I’m intrigued and slightly intimidated.

“I like using sexual metaphors to talk about men and women and their relationships,” Bernstein explains as she shows me a piece from her ‘Birth of the Universe’ series. “In this case, the woman is not the passive female, she’s very aggressive. Historically, we’ve had a lot of the women’s stuff be very passive in terms of how they’re represented sexually and emotionally. Women have a lot of anger and I wanted to show that.”

Bernstein loves to explore femininity and masculinity in a colorful, aggressive, yet playful way. Her graphic paintings of teeth-bearing vaginas and screws have a raw, in-your-face appeal while still emitting a comic tone; it’s compelling and incredibly fervent. “The vagina has teeth cause women have teeth, and the screws were like hardware and hardware has a lot of sexual metaphors, as does sports. It’s about ego, the male ego, but also my ego. I never leave myself out of the equation,” she adds with a wry grin.

Her vibrant genitalia paintings have been celebrated and shared around the world. After being inspired by the limericks and graffiti drawings in the boys bathroom at Yale, she decided to experiment with the style. “I never felt that the work was graffiti, the work really was fine art,” she assures me. “You’re actually taking something that is a popular culture thing, as Warhol did, and putting it into a fine arts context.”

With an eye-catching style influence and graphic illustration material, Bernstein still finds ways to make her work louder and bolder. But she always makes sure to leave an even bigger mark on her pieces, often autographing her pieces with an oversized signature.

While she’s established a strong reputation for her feminist paintings, she combines her style with other important social issues, like the Vietnam War and the current war in Iraq. “This ‘ISIS GUNK,’” she says tersely as she shows me the recent piece. “This has to do with the political situation. It’s cum all over the face, making the United States into a very diminutive state that we can’t do much about. We have not been able to really handle the way our big guns can’t fix things like we’d like them to.”

Her work is very socially aggressive, reminiscent of early punk art. The raw nature is powerful and gripping in a way that is a threat to authority. It’s hard to imagine that these street influenced neon genital paintings weren’t appreciated at the time of their conception. It’s evident that Bernstein learned a lot from her surroundings for years before finding a visual way to translate her perspective.

Although she drew some of her earliest inspiration from her time at the university, she didn’t start creating pieces until years after she graduated. “I waited 25 years, almost a quarter of a century to show work,” she tells me. “It was sad. I was very depressed about it, frankly. But right now I’m having a great time.”

Despite having a late start, Bernstein seems to have made up for lost time. After partially creating an all-women art collective, AIR Gallery, (“I had suggested ‘TWAT’ – Twenty Women Artists Together, but it was too ahead of the time,”) art critics were initially sympathetic to her and the work of her feminist peers. Being ahead of the time is a blessing and a curse.

It would be decades before mainstream consciousness started recognizing her work, but Bernstein remains just as passionate now about feminism as she did during the birth of the movement. “We have to call attention to the fact that women are part of humanity, part of what has to be said, they have a voice and we want their voice to be heard,” she says. “I think now there’s a lot more interest because women have come to a stage where they’ve gotten to the glass ceiling and are wondering how they can go farther.”

Feminist was a bold title to claim back in the early 70s. Her work definitely helped shape the path so that new artists like Petra Collins and Grace Miceli could translate what feminism means to the digital age.

But now, she’s going full steam ahead. At 72, Bernstein seems to be at the height of her career, creating work for galleries and shows across the world. Having just been featured at Mary Boone Gallery and Art Basel, the world is clearly hungry for more.

After an hour of exploring her studio and archives, I ask her if there’s anything else she’d like to say. “I have some things coming up. I have another show at Mary Boone — downtown this time, and it’ll be a historic show in January. I’ll also have a retrospective at Kunsthall Stavanger Stavanger in Norway in February. I also have a book coming out and it’ll be published by Patrick Fray. So we’re working on a lot of new things.”

It’s no surprise that Judith Bernstein is always finding new ways to keep busy. It’s nice to know the revolution never sleeps.

Photos courtesy of the artist and Mary Boone Gallery, New York

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