Volume XXVII Number 2
Chiaroscuro II by Edward Bernstein, 2004
Courtesy Edward Bernstein
Photo © Tyagan Miller
It’s easy, and convenient, to call Edward Bernstein a printmaker. That’s his background and his training; he’s a professor and co-head of printmaking at Indiana University’s Hope School of Fine Arts in Bloomington. But it’s a measure of the evolution of the art form—and his own eclecticism as an artist—that Bernstein demonstrates mild discomfort with the label.
“I do works on paper,” he says. “I make pictures,” he says later.
These broad assertions are more descriptive than they might seem—they distinguish Bernstein, for instance, from the growing number of his students who assemble installations, three-dimensional environments that viewers don’t so much look at as inhabit. But Bernstein’s language also points to how much his own work has changed since he got his Master of Fine Arts degree from IU in the early 1970s.
Printmaking traditionally consists of creating images by pressing a piece of paper against an inked surface. A woodcut is one example: the artist carves the image into a block of wood—the areas of the block not carved away hold the ink and transfer the image to the paper. Another example is etching: the artist creates the image by marking a metal plate through an acid-resistant coating, then etching the image into the metal by immersing the plate in a chemical bath. Bernstein started out primarily as an etcher. “That was the preponderance of my work; that was what I was known for,” he says.
Consequently, Bernstein works in a sprawling studio space on the Bloomington campus filled with all the unwieldy technology associated with traditional printmaking: huge bulky machinery more suggestive of heavy industry than delicate aesthetics. These machines are the presses through which paper and plates are rolled, fixing image on paper with an enormous amount of pressure. It’s the kind of equipment around which a person could lose a finger. The press in Bernstein’s campus studio looks like it should be in a manufacturing plant. Only its big carnivalesque wheel adds a touch of whimsy.
A review of Bernstein’s oeuvre reveals that he’s used this heavy machinery to explore a handful of recurring ideas. He identifies architecture as a “central metaphor” of his work. His prints tend to use the shapes and structures of architecture to frame pieces that often comment on the rootlessness of modern society or commemorate cataclysmic human suffering, such as earthquakes or devastating floods.
“I guess my work has always been somewhat apocalyptic,” Bernstein muses, sifting through old slides. “Sometimes I do fun stuff,” he insists, “but I guess mostly . . .” He trails off.
In printmaking, as in all other avenues of human endeavor, things have changed. On tours of his studio, Bernstein likes to tell people, “We work with technology from the 15th century through the 21st century.” The huge manual press sits under the same roof as a candy-colored Mac computer hooked up to a large digital printer. Like the rest of us, Bernstein’s work has been shaped by 21st-century advances in technology. But his new directions also have been motivated by his own predilections and by unpredictable events affecting him from without.
Back in the late 1990s, Bernstein—a self-described Italophile—was living in Florence. One day the light hit a chandelier in a certain way and, struck by the beauty of the fleeting visual phenomenon, Bernstein photographed it. That picture hung in his studio for years, a reminder of pleasant times past. After September 11, 2001, when members of the North American Print Alliance were asked to submit an image to honor those who died in the atrocity, Bernstein’s mind was drawn back to his chandelier snapshot.
“For most modern Jews,” he says, “immortality is achieved through the memory of a person.” Bernstein wanted to offer an image that acknowledged the function and nature of memory, and he wanted to use a highly personal, passionately felt memory as the vehicle for that theme. The chandelier photo not only represented such a memory itself but also evoked the very phenomenon of memory as something blurry and elusive, “often unclear and unstable, like shadow and light,” Bernstein says.
Bernstein used the chandelier image to come up with a diptych entitled Memoria. It suggested both the object itself (a chandelier, on the left) and the less tangible memory of the object (an abstracted, shadowy detail of the chandelier on the right). In the context of the September 11 project, the piece thus honored both the person and the memory of the person.
Memoria set Bernstein on a new path, building on the themes and preoccupations of his past work but employing new imagery and new technology. Funded by an Arts and Humanities grant from IU’s Office of the Vice President for Research, Bernstein returned to Italy with a camera and trolled Venice for shots of its famous Murano chandeliers, talking his way into glass museums and private palazzos—”I even got into a place where they made them,” he reports enthusiastically—and accumulating a collection of images. Then he returned to Bloomington, scanned the negatives into a computer, and began manipulating them.
The resulting prints bear little direct resemblance to the individual chandeliers he photographed. Some of the pieces—oversized and chunky and abstracted—bear little resemblance to a chandelier at all. Thanks to modern-day computer software, Bernstein can change and augment an image with pieces of other chandeliers or different backgrounds. Last summer, he surreptitiously photographed a box of chandelier parts at a flea market in the Lido in Venice, and those bits and pieces have turned up as parts in entirely different works, Stilled Life I and Stilled Life II.
“I couldn’t have done this without the help of a B.F.A. photography student who’s been my tutor,” Bernstein says, and adds, half-joking: “He’s graduating, actually, so I’m really worried.”
Working with his art students, Bernstein is entirely aware of the fact that “you can’t get a job now unless you know how to do this digital stuff,” and he’s modestly dismissive of his own facility with the new technology. “It’s like learning a foreign language,” he says. “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it.”
But the pieces Bernstein has created suggest he knows what he’s doing. You’d never guess that bulbs from one chandelier were digitally added to the fixtures of another. At the same time, the overall effect is artful and otherworldly, miles away from photorealism. It’s not surprising to learn that the print has been manipulated by the artist, even if the precise manipulations are difficult to identify.
The chandelier pieces are a sign of how Bernstein’s chosen medium has evolved with the times, but his current projects do share some characteristics with old-fashioned printmaking. They’re difficult, for example, and expensive.
“When I first tried this process, I used a different printer,” Bernstein says. “It was so disappointing. For me, as an etcher, the blacks just were not rich enough.”
One of the more palpable pleasures of printmaking is how deep and vibrant its blacks can be—a luxurious velvet or the gaping abyss, depending on your mood. So Bernstein turned to an archival inkjet printer, a tremendously expensive option that involves pricey paper and ink that goes for a dollar a milliliter. Even then, Bernstein found himself tricking the machine into running the paper through twice, giving him access to a wider range of tones as well as the rich quality of black that satisfied his etcher’s eye.
One of printmaking’s distinguishing characteristics is its reproducibility. Bernstein identifies printmaking as historically the most democratic art form, noting that “early on, simple woodcuts in the Middle Ages would get handed out to illiterate Catholics.” Many artists, like Bernstein, eliminate this idea of reproducibility by working directly on the print, drawing into it or otherwise rendering it a unique object. But Bernstein’s current technology makes unlimited reproducibility impractical anyway.
“I can maybe do five [prints], that’s it,” he says. “It’s so expensive.“
Expense is particularly a concern in a world where shrinking arts grants won’t even cover the cost of framing a piece. But cost is only one of the challenges associated with his work. “The ink is so fragile. I have a lot of failure,” he reports with resigned equanimity.
That failure, though, is balanced by some pretty striking successes. Bernstein’s chandelier prints—called Constellations—are formally beautiful and tonally evocative, implying both hope and foreboding in one work, blending gentle nostalgia with eeriness in another. Some of Bernstein’s other recent work pushes the juxtaposition of moods even further, placing his chandelier constellations alongside photographed shadows of stacked model house frames. The chandeliers convey a certain measured optimism, while the starkly architectural shadows—which he calls “projectiles” and associates with weaponry—are reminiscent of German expressionism, nuclear aftermath, and other things neither warm nor fuzzy.
“It sounds like an oxymoron, but I guess I’m a Sartrean optimist,” says Bernstein, who majored in political science as an undergraduate at Miami University of Ohio. “I started out as a landscape painter, but then my work became really political,” he says. “The stuff was, frankly, terrible.”
Bernstein has since developed an aversion to overt propaganda—or overt anything—in art. “Didactic work is boring,” he declares. “Art should be timeless. I guess I’m old-fashioned but I think it should have beauty. Whatever that means.”
That doesn’t change the fact, however, that Bernstein’s work is challenging and thoroughly relevant. No one regarding the beautiful yet brooding chiaroscuro of his current work would be surprised to learn that it was done post-9/11. “Recently, audience reaction has been very positive,” says Bernstein, who has had shows of his latest work in Chicago and Bloomington. “I don’t sell a lot, but then I never have. I don’t do ‘couch art.’ There’s some art collecting, but it’s not like it once was. Unfortunately, a lot of wealthy people in their 30s and 40s are buying plasma TVs, not art.”
There’s also the matter of America’s plummeting attention span. “That makes it difficult for someone like me,” Bernstein says. “People don’t want to take time digesting something.” On the one hand, that could bode ill for Bernstein, who says “I can’t see myself doing video” and likens art to eating a good meal. On the other hand, the artist has his priorities in order.
“The most important thing is making the work. I’m an artist who teaches, not a teacher who does some art. I have access to a nice studio and a world-class printmaking facility, and IU is really great to its faculty. But what’s important is making images. When I retire, I’ll build a studio and have my press, and I’ll just keep working.”
Eric Pfeffinger is a playwright and freelance writer. He lives in Toledo, Ohio.