The artwork that I am making today looks different from the work I was doing back when I was still living in Cincinnati in the late 60’s and the early 70’s. As I look back over my career from the earlier periods through the present I see many of the same themes and issues present then as now. For me it is evident from the beginnings in my work that I was struggling with the limitations of the societal norms and the constraints such things place upon one’s individuality. Though this was not a conscious declaration of themes that I was trying to depict in my work, it is more of an understanding that I have gleaned from the reading of my finished pieces and the processes that I am involved in as I am creating the work.
Coming out of school at the University of Michigan I was making geometric paintings with linear motifs that wrapped around the edges of 3-dimensional canvases. At the same time that I was using a taped hard-edged technique to make a crisply painted line I was allowing the paint to bleed beneath the tape oozing into the raw canvas’ surfaces. By doing this I was softening and combating the hard edge of the line at the same time keeping the definition of the line present. In many of the pieces the lines and planes of color would subtly undulate around the sides of the paintings disregarding the boundaries set by the different depths of the different surfaces and their edges. In some of the works I would leave the fronts of the pieces almost completely unpainted.
At the time I was aware that I was dealing with the issues surrounding the limitations of edges, boundaries and frames in addition using the multi-leveled planes of the multitiered surfaces to re-enforce the physicality of the 3-dimensional paintings as structure, thereby declaring the pieces inclusive as both sculptural objects and paintings.
Even in these early works it is evident that though I was working within the box I was trying to emphasize the need not to be defined by the box. I believe that this interplay between opposites has been declarative throughout my work right up to the present.
As the restrictions of the geometric painting became too controlling for me the linear motifs washed away into color fields of rolled paint. But even though the colors would subtly flow into one another and roll over the edges and off the sides of the of the box the boundaries of these stretched rectangles still were too defining for me. The physical structure still interfered with the freedom of expression for which I seemed to be searching. It wasn’t long before I got rid of the stretchers all together in order to allow the paintings to float unrestrained upon the surface of the walls. Yet in opposition to this “freedom” I chose to use spikes protruding from the corners nailing the paintings in place on the walls.
In time I moved completely away from the restrictions of the walls and began to paint on both sides of the unstretched canvases allowing them to float within the 3-dimensional space of the room undefined by the 2-dimensional plane of the wall. Also at this time I began lifting the brush off the surface of the canvases in order to allow the paint to fly or float through the air in order to reach the surfaces of the paintings. This act itself exemplifies the most important aspects of the process, that is the process itself, the artistic act. The finished surface of a painting is the aesthetic effect of the brush stroked painted surface or the swatch of color placed upon the canvas in an attempt to describe an event or an emotion. This is very restrictive and extremely artificial to me.
Just as dreams or free associations can unveil subconscious motivations behind the waking life, I choose to use my work as a map to decipher my personal motivations. By interpreting my own footsteps I find it is possible to secure some understanding of the underlying motivations that guide my trek along the pathway of my life.
In time I began to move beyond the canvas completely and allow this expressive form to touch the actual objects around me directly. My environment became my canvas. Those dots, splashes and lines of color shape-shifting into 3-dimensional objects, babbles and beads and strings and chains, manifesting a literal, physical sense of the paint flying through the air and it’s splashdown. This was underlining an appreciation of the dance with the paint globs, splatters and drips in addition to the enjoyment of the end result. At the same time these splashes and drips and spots of color and texture are analogous to the frenetic quantum realm that exists within the seemingly solid matter of existence. And to the corollary that matter is not solid and we only accept the illusion of it so, to this is the truth that the painting is not just a painting but it is the accumulation of a process that leads up to is inclusive of the finished product.
This joy experienced in the studio is not always apparent to a viewer of a finished work of art. But by allowing the viewer to become enveloped within an installation and not remain solely as an onlooking bystander I believe this immersion can illuminate for the now participant more information about this process and in some way it can convey more of the visceral experience that the artist feels. The line of the drawing becomes a 3-dimensionalized experience that can be defined as an event thus becoming much more descriptive in emotion and purpose. Metaphorically speaking pearls might be analogous to precious moments and crystals may be reflective ones.
This viewer/participant surrounded by these lines and objects and all kinds of matter which have been manipulated, painted, or tied together and combined in some new and seemingly unconnected manner offers the opportunity for this person to become engulfed within the artwork. These manipulated and changed elements have echoes of the familiar signs of reality, yet not a reality with which one can recognize it’s original intentions or purposes. It can be through the incorporation of some elements of reality within this spatial gumbo that can act as signposts along a journey of the unfamiliar. Unlike a painting or a sculpture an installation is experienced for a set period of time and then disappears never to exist in the same form again it will be only be our perception that is left.
Another aspect of my work that has developed over the years also relates back to the unstretched canvases is my paintings on paper. These are pieces that I like to present under glass and framed in opposition to the pieces that actually surround one or invite one to touch. These are more intimate pieces. They appear to need the protection and privacy that the presentation of the frames and glass offer. The works have surfaces that have been distressed, scratched and scraped, with torn and ripped edges that look as though they have been chewed or gnawed. The distressed skins look as though they have been buried and forgotten and then rediscovered eons later much as an archeologist would have rediscovered an ancient text, dusted it clean and secured it under glass to preserve the findings. And just as the intimacy and fragility of parts of our lives need privacy and protection so does the fragile reality of “paperworks”. But beyond the physical attributes of the paper’s intrinsic delicacy, I feel it is also necessary to give the perspective that frames and glass give in order to protect and value the delicacy, the intimacy and the fragility of the context in this facet of my work.
Much as the events in our lives take place and then seem to disappear into the past, we often overlook the importance of the past as though the events of the past took place in a vacuum. But nothing does. If we were to dust off these lost experiences and study the fragmented elements it is possible to glean added understandings from the information in our histories that can offer insights into our pursuit of our futures. At the same time the fact that the past becomes fragmented and our memories selective, the realization is presented to us that we can not reconstruct a duplicate narrative of the past nor would I hope that we would want to fall into the “Ground hog Day” scenario of repetitive footsteps over and over and over again and again. But what can be done is to utilize these rediscoveries as signposts in order to guide our personal and societal progressions forward.
At the same time it is important to accept the facts that part of the reasons that these elements of the past have been buried either consciously or unconsciously, or left uncared for or forgotten is part and parcel with the rediscoveries themselves, the timing of the rediscoveries, the appreciation of their condition, and the platform given to their presentation all add to the important information. There is always the need to appreciate the fragment in and of itself and not only for the content carried within the “document”. The condition itself can convey information beyond the content waiting to be rediscovered or discovered for the first time. As with a seemingly discarded, mutilated and abused fragment it may be apparent that as time has elapsed events have taken place.
The final facet of my work to date is the jewelry and jeweled objects. These are the adornments that we use to dress ourselves up with and or our loved ones in order to exalt the feelings and emotions that we feel toward ourselves and our loved ones. Though the jewelry and the objects are reconstructed with societal’s “precious” elements such as gold and silver and gemstones they are basically reconstructed in the same ways as all my other works. They are tied together with elements both old and new, tarnished and shiny, precious and mundane, all together evoking the appearance of being broken, tangled, forgotten, or uncared for; but then, like a lost treasure found and rediscovered the newly appreciated and conserved works of art carry a new weight of information about there intrinsic preciousness that they now seem to possess anew.
As an artist who is contemplating and expressing my passage through this lifetime it would be artificial and incomplete for me if I were to think that paint on a canvas on a square would offer me the total dialog needed in order to dissect my experiences with the needed understanding and insight for which I am searching. That is why the Environmental Installations, the Paintings, the Jewelry and the Objects are all equally important elements of the entire body, mind and soul of my work.
Martin L. Bernstein
© martinbernstein.com 2002
ZHOU B ART CENTER