Gerry Bergstein: Skeleton Crew
October 7 – November 5 at Gallery NAGA
In October, Gallery NAGA presents Gerry Bergstein’s new paintings, which look like though they’ve been buried in art history’s tomb, subsequently unearthed – until Bergstein came along to salvage and make sense of it all.
Gerry Bergstein: Skeleton Crew runs from October 7 through November 5. A reception for the artist and the public will be held at the gallery on Friday, October 7 from 6 to 8 pm.
This exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalog with a transcribed conversation between Gerry Bergstein and two fellow artist friends of his, Sheila Gallagher and Ethan Murrow. What follows are excerpts from this discussion.
Gerry Bergstein The new work is a synthesis of themes I have been dealing with for decades – decay, vanitas, mortality, paradoxes of meaning.
Ethan Murrow I’m seeing this more in terms of the whole painting rather than the accumulation of details. I experience a kind of murkiness in the entirety of the painting. If you walked into one of Fragonard’s paintings you would just start sweating. You know, leaves and moisture. The air is dripping.
Something like this happens in your paintings, too, although yours are drier and dustier. There’s that kind of chaos, muchness, abundance. If I entered them I feel like I would start stepping on all these dry and crunchy things.
Sheila Gallagher They do seem drier and bonier and more desolate than your old work.
GB This one is called Skeleton Crew, Small Version. This guy here is sweeping up the bones. Fragonard wandering in the desert.
EM Fragonard gives us the stereotype of our romantic view of France. You’ve constantly sourced back to many European masters. There are lots of classical sources in the paintings that go very far back art historically.
EM I see this big mess here. I mean that in a positive way. It’s a mess that I can I step into to pick apart a puzzle. I get the sense you enjoy the stumbling and bumbling that might happen when we look at the paintings.
EM There’s always been the element of trompe l’oeil to what you’re doing, and even now I’m still looking at this and having to decipher what is actual tape and what is painted tape. What we see is not always true. It seems like you are making fun of our perceptions. For instance, in some pieces you mock up books without actually making books. Or in the flower pieces some similar things happen.
GB Yes, in this book painting, here is a part which is actually one piece of paper on top of another, but in this other part there is an illusion of one piece of paper on top of another. It seems simplistic, but I love simultaneously knowing and not knowing what is real and what is fake. This is a philosophical issue for me.
The flower/fruit pieces are tied into the contradictions. This tomato and the giant red glob have a lot in common. One is abstract, paint squeezed out of the tube, and the other is an illusionistic tomato. The self-portrait figure in the middle is the artist exploring what hell is going on here.
EM When I think of the term “trompe l’oeil,” I think of perfection, an illusion that renders something so perfectly that you are tricked into thinking it’s real. What I like about how you use it in your work is that you are very blunt about that fakery. You trick, but just briefly. If you go close, you can discover all of the underlying details and layers.
SG The point is keep going back and back and back and back, from one layer to another to another to another.
SG These small floral pieces in the Vermont vanitas series are different. These are less Rorschachy, less hallucinogenic. They are intimate, almost dollhouse-like, domestic dioramas.
GB I started the first of these new ones a year ago, but kept feeling like I was trying to
repeat an earlier success. This always makes me feel trapped and bored. The first many months were torture, but I persisted and started a few others.
Then last week I went to an artist talk, a former student, Sasha Parfenova. I loved her gorgeous work, which she described as being about vanitas, the decay and mortality of beauty and youth. I immediately thought, “OH! THAT’S WHAT MY LITTLE PAINTINGS ARE ABOUT!!”
And I immediately fell in love with the process of making them. I had to discover something new in them before I could love them.
SG They have a frenzied “making” quality, like a wedding cake maker on meth.
EM They look like little shrines, too. Some shrines have candles, objects, or old photos, which give you that mixture of wax and dust. Shrines may seem incomprehensible in some ways. You may not know where the photos are from or about their personal connection to the maker. To the outside viewer, it’s more about our collective vision than specific meanings.