LOS ANGELES — With her latest exhibition, We Don’t Owe You a Tomorrow, Judith Bernstein creates an expanding universe of pain and disaster. The artist continues to build on the cosmology she began with her Birth of the Universe paintings, combining the Big Bang with the social, political, environmental, and biological viruses that infect our lives. But where works from the past few years focused with laser-sharp fury on Trump and the history of political corruption and violence that aided his ascendance, her latest paintings are both less explicit in their messaging and more agitated in their energy. Trump, and the neo-Nazism he emboldened, loom in the background but in the years since her last show at The Box disasters of planetary proportions have exploded into a daily cycle of doom.
The gallery’s large front room establishes the show’s general atmosphere, while a small gallery contains her caustic early antiwar and feminist drawings and prints. Fluorescent black-light paint coheres into frenzied cyclones of gesture and form in a two-row, eight-painting grid on one wall. Bernstein’s recurring iconography shows up — vicious vagina dentatas, personified phalluses — along with swastikas and text, including the show’s title and the name “Trumpenschlong,” but they take a backseat to the compositions’ overall chaos.
In “We Don’t Owe U A Tomorrow (Small #2)” (2022), a whirlwind of lurid color, overlaid with the show’s title in black block letters, edges a squid-like vagina dentata into a corner. Rendered in thick, forceful brushstrokes and meandering lines, the forms evoke monstrosity without sharp definition, as if an unchecked force is coming into being.
The show’s centerpieces are three paintings in a black-lit backroom. Reflecting the other works on a much larger scale, they consume the small space. Loose, broad brushstrokes swirl into giant nebulas to create a vertiginous abyss — the sense of motion in works like the 78 by 78-inch “We Don’t Owe U A Tomorrow #3” (2022), whose sweeping strokes record the artist’s reach across the canvas, is disorienting.
The black grounds of most of the paintings intensify the sense of cosmic chaos, but they are beset with a deathlike quality rarely seen in the artist’s earlier works, even ones that directly addressed death in war or genocide. Heads that resembled Mickey Mouse in previous pieces mutate into cartoonish skulls that haunt the canvas like death masks from the past or future, most prominently in the intentionally misspelled “Gasligting” and “Gasligting (Blue Ground)” (both 2021); and in “Gasligting (We Don’t Owe U A Tomorrow)” (2023), a pink face evolved from her longstanding “Cockman” characters (heads composed of male genitalia) is frozen into a stunned corpse.
It’s a dark turn for an artist whose acerbic wit has often accompanied her weighty subjects, but maybe an appropriate one for the times.
Judith Bernstein: We Don’t Owe You a Tomorrow continues at The Box (805 Traction Avenue, Arts District, Los Angeles) through August 12. The exhibition was curated by Paul McCarthy.