Late last week, I got the opportunity to pop by and visit Laura Bernstein at her space in the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program in DUMBO. She's one of several artists (including the inimitable Jaimie Warren) awarded a one-year studio residency for the program's 2017-18 cycle. The spaces are impressive in size, and Bernstein's studio is meticulously organized but totally packed with an overwhelming amount of sculptures, watercolors, and costumes that she's been developing while in-residence. Central to much of the work is a fascination with carnival aesthetics, medieval bestiaries, freak show spectacle, and the pseudoscience of cryptozoology.
I first learned about Bernstein's work when she did a two-person exhibition, "The Barometric Pressure is All Over the Place," at Anytime Dept. in Cincinnati, OH with one of my oldest friends and collaborators, Portland-based artist Daniel J Glendening. Longtime readers of Humor and the Abject—or listeners to the podcast—will know that I have a weak spot when it comes to work that incorporates the paranormal, the weird, and the otherworldly. While I didn't get to attend their show, I dug into the documentation online and grew excited about Bernstein. It seemed like a fascinating pairing, and Glendening spoke highly of the opportunity to present work alongside her.
In April, I finally got the chance to see Bernstein's work in person at her first New York solo exhibition, "Becoming Beast," at NURTUREart in Brooklyn. The show featured her weird and wonky sculptures plus new video pieces that, according to the press release, "[explore], with grotesque humor and fantasy, the free movement of genes, body parts, biological mechanisms, and power when the boundaries that define ecosystems dissolve." The windowless, basement-level space of NURTUREart was a fitting setting, and descending into the gallery felt like entering an oddities lab that any research scientist worth their tenured faculty position would lobby to have shut down. Bernstein's work is at once unsettling and funny, a sort of high-camp, saccharine version of what one might encounter at Philadelphia's Mütter Museum. And having earned her MFA at the University of Pennsylvania, she's no stranger to its cabinets of medical curiosities.
For somebody who creates such upsetting science fictions, she's remarkably laid back. We sipped seltzers and talked about her years-long interest in the chaotic order of carnivals, as well as her more recent study of sheep shearing (wool is a recurring material in her sculptures). Strange humanoid beasts rendered in paper, wax, and found objects surrounded us, some frozen in time on shallow wooden platforms, others bungee-corded to the large, load-bearing column in the middle of the room. Bernstein repeatedly referred to the column as a "tree." Those sculptures are definitely attention-grabbing, though I was especially interested in a massive wall in the space covered in her watercolor works. They're not "studies," exactly; Bernstein sources imagery from a variety of history books and the internet and collages them together either via digital editing programs or simply in her head, then paints them in explosive hues on heavy paper.
These pieces reminded me of Ralph Pugay's wild and elegant paintings. Besides being a sucker for anything occult-ish, it turns out I'm also a sucker for oddly-rendered paintings depicting dense gatherings of people engaged in ridiculous—and sometimes unwholesome—group activities. It makes sense that galleries would jump at the opportunity to present Bernstein's sculptural work, but I'd personally like to see an entire show of just the watercolors. They reward long looking, revealing intricate systems of interaction and dependency. In addition to Pugay, I found myself later reflecting on my obsession with the elaborate illustrations of Richard Scarry when I was a little screedler in the Midwest.
Bernstein was originally crafting three-dimensional objects for the purpose of costuming, as evidenced in the video clip earlier in this post. Seeing them activated by human bodies results in an uncanny experience, and yet I'm just as affected by the newer, stationary works. Her penchant for embedding pieces into natural environments in her videos could lead to some potentially fascinating, photographic documentations of the inanimate sculptures in-natura. Their color palettes might provide a type of camouflage in the American southwest. Perhaps a ridiculous road trip is in order for Bernstein. And on the off chance that you're reading this and happen to manage an artist residency program in New Mexico, Arizona, or Utah, get some damn funds together and bring Bernstein out. I can guarantee you won't be disappointed.
Big thanks to Bernstein for inviting me over. Check out a few more studio shots below.