by Rabia Ashfaque
Cabinet of Horrors
The Drawing Center | October 13, 2017 – February 4, 2018
Layers of paint and charcoal, occasionally collaged with images of Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler, compose the larger-than-life drawings that occupy The Drawing Center’s main gallery in Judith Bernstein: Cabinet of Horrors. From orange-hued images that simultaneously invoke comic portrayals of Trump and the not-so-comic ones of his presidency, such as a cock-shaped mass orbiting the earth in Trump Asteroids (2017), to less vibrant, yet no less charged scrawls and slashes, black with fury, as Money Shot Sluts (2016)—Bernstein’s deliberately impudent images reflect her palpable outrage following the 2016 election results. A clown’s hat fashioned out of drooping, swastika-tipped dongs in Schlongface Jester 5 (2016), a prick-faced Nazi monster in Frankenschlong (2017), a blood-sucking creature rising to power after making a deal with the devil in Count Trump (2017); the ill-concealed derision in Bernstein’s works, the press release states, is designed as a response to “Trump’s own insult-driven, childlike syntax,” and portrays her “anger, disgust, and disapproval of the current administration and its policies.”
Bernstein is not the only enraged artist we’ve seen this year. Since Trump took office, politically charged art exhibitions have been on the rise, responding to the needs of the time by bearing witness to, and protesting against, social injustice and economic repression. In this precarious moment, Bernstein’s electric, graffiti-esque drawings, ever piercing with jagged jocularity, sizzle with renewed vitality. Affront breeds affront in the works at The Drawing Center as each mural redirects crude slurs back at the men who usually dispense them, each dollar-bill drawing holds up a mirror to the avarice that has brought us to this moment in time, and each political campaign button reminds us who we, as a nation, voted into presidency.
The text of One Fool Dollar Bill (2017) sums up Bernstein’s feelings:
GEORGE WASHINGTON COULDN’T TELL A LIE
NIXON COULDN’T TELL THE TRUTH
TRUMP CAN’T TELL THE DIFFERENCE
This one dollar bill features images of Trump, the Swastika, and Hitler superimposed over “schlongs” (Bernstein’s preferred description of the male genitalia) and hangs to the right of Cabinet of Horrors (2017) in which ten schlongs surround an image of the United States flag atop the Capitol building. The imperiousness of these schlongs is what Bernstein finds offensive. Once, a Guerilla Girl, Bernstein has, as Thomas Micchelli puts it in the exhibition catalogue essay, “spent a full half-century confronting the outrages, barbarities, abuses, and mendacities of men in power. Her body of work, stretching across ten American Presidencies, reads as a visual history of scandal, greed, inanity, overreach, and outright crime, invariably expressed through the infinitely versatile metaphor of the male sex organ.”
In Seal of Disbelief (2017), Bernstein revises the presidential seal to reflect her interpretation of it. The seal’s blue background is rendered a right-wing red. White stars that usually surround the eagle turn black as if mourning while their golden echo encircles the seal in a duality of opulence and deflection. The phrase “In God We Trust” is added to the bottom right, in which “God” is replaced with “Evil,” altering the essence of the motto “E Pluribus Unum” in the seal. “Out of Many, One” seems to reinforce white supremacist ideals over unity, simultaneously singling out this particular presidency as the worst among many flawed presidencies. In this context, the title of the work suggests a suspension of disbelief in the notion that Trump’s election is a rare phenomenon, wryly implying that the election of men as leaders of this country is a norm we should be accustomed to. Moreover, it seems to insinuate that this particular brand of presidency, shockingly profiteering and male-centric as it may seem, has nonetheless been in the making for decades, given our society’s increasing submission to capitalist ideologies that have weakened democratic ideals. While the overt censure in her work may seem to point to men at large, Bernstein’s antagonism is specifically directed at those who continue to amass and wrongfully exert power, as well as those who blindly continue to elect them into roles of leadership.
Bernstein’s collection of vintage piggy banks—almost conspiratorial in the way they are assembled in a delighted huddle, their wide-eyed, hoggish faces blustering red as they stand in a semi-circle, bearing down upon a scaled-down model of the U.S. Capitol—in the installation Porky Banks (2017) invokes facsimiles of the age-old alliance of wealthy, white men that run the world to the ground, chortling along the way. As with the other works in the exhibition, Bernstein titles the work with deliberately corny, pun-inflected drollness, almost as a reflection of the kind of humor she expects from her anti-heroes. Similarly, Black All-American Spread Eagle (2017) is a double entendre, showing the placement of the seal of the U.S. President on a woman’s vagina as she lies in a spread-eagled position, while in All-American Spread Eagle (2017) the seal is replaced with a schlong surrounded by swastikas and “HEIL TRUMP” written at the bottom right of the image. WW3 (2017) depicts schlong-faced Trump and Kim Jong Un engaged in a face-off (pun intended) as the world spontaneously combusts in the background.
To look at Bernstein’s scathingly astute work in Cabinet of Horrors is to be confronted by the continuing trajectory of a history of male dominance resulting in the steady corruption of society and a harsh look at where we stand today. As Bernstein’s biting commentary explodes onto paper with pulsating magnitude, so her works echo the outraged voices of innumerable women. Had Donald Trump not been elected, would women have continued to remain quiet, unsure of how to contest the fact that while they make gains in public, they continue to be forced to trade their sense of self-worth in private? Had Hillary Clinton been president, would minorities be content to see a woman as the face of leadership, if not the actual leader? Would liberals have continued to breed and back an ethically weak leadership, forced to bow to a repressive majority in Congress, and to socially regressive policies at large? Faced with these questions, and despite the terrible times we are currently witnessing, one wonders if Trump’s election may well have come as a boon in disguise. With more and more minorities actively participating in local politics and winning seats in the government, the possibility of a revitalized liberal base grows. Sidelined for centuries, the voices of women strengthen. And protesting for decades, a former Guerilla Girl’s work finds new relevance.
Rabia Ashfaque is a widely published writer, born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan. She received her MFA in Art Criticism and Writing from the School of Visual Arts in 2014.