Available Works: Bernstein, Seth
The work of the conceptual artist Seth Bernstein is a compellingly innovative mixture of forms. His paintings are openly informed by a number of modernist influences that, in combination, constitute something altogether new.
Curiously, the first set of references is based in another medium – sculpture – and can be discerned most clearly in Bernstein’s treatment of the human figure. This aspect of Bernstein’s work recalls the ‘monumental’ approach of two well-known British artists: Henry Moore and Dame Barbara Hepworth. The lives of these artists, as well as the style of their art, are inextricably linked. Active throughout much of the 20th century, both enjoyed domestic and international acclaim. Their practices incorporated new ideas about psychoanalysis and the unconscious, whilst referencing themes of fragmentation, the power of nature, vulnerability and claustrophobia. Their work helped to establish the Modernist movement in Britain in the 1930s and both remain popular and influential today. Although known primarily as sculptors, both Moore and Hepworth also produced notable works in two dimensions. Both artists hailed from Yorkshire – the former born in Castleford in 1898 and the latter in Wakefield in 1903 – and acknowledged the inspiration provided by the local landscape, from the natural outcrops of stone on the moors and the mountainous slag heaps in rural mining villages.
Bernstein’s work both references and critically addresses aspects of the work of Moore and Hepworth. Yet this is not purely a process of caricature or homage. Bernstein’s concern is rather to pull aspects of these artists’ work into the present, creating something novel either ‘through’ or ‘by way of’ their established styles. By addressing aspects of their sculptural work in painting, Bernstein extends his own formal language of figuration and abstraction in an attempt to find new possibilities. His focus is on building on many the recognized preoccupations of Moore and Hepworth, as well as combining these concerns with other external influences.
Bernstein recognises various qualities in the work of Moore and Hepworth. These include the combined solidity and vitality of the sculpted forms and their material relationship to the earth. Like his predecessors, Bernstein wants to convey a sense of power whilst allowing for unlimited formal inventions. His figures emphasise gravity and weight, yet remain free and dynamic. Across asymmetrical compositions, Bernstein’s interest in natural forms, such as bones and pebbles, are echoed in the curvature of limbs and the pronounced bosom of female figures, tracing the influence of primitive arts.
Considering his obvious influence on Bernstein’s practice, it may be useful to further contextualise it through background information on Moore and Hepworth, particularly some of their most recognisable pieces. Moore’s upbringing was humble. His father was a coal miner and the family often struggled with poverty. After the First World War he received a serviceman’s grant to continue his education and, in 1919, attended Leeds School of Art. It was here that Moore met Hepworth, thus beginning a lifelong friendship and professional rivalry. In 1921, both independently won scholarships to attend the Royal College of Art in London. Moving to the capital would prove crucial in their developing practices – each could absorb the influence of primitive art exhibits in the British and Victoria & Albert Museums, as well as making new acquaintances of Brancusi and Jacob Epstein. Soon both Moore and Hepworth would adopt the method of direct carving, a process by which the workings of their manual labour would remain visible in a finished piece of sculpture. In subsequent years, formative trips to Italy exposed both artists to a variety of lasting influences, not only Old Masters such as Michelangelo and Giovanni Pisano, but also artefacts from ancient Mexican, Sumerian, Early Greek and Etruscan cultures.
Following a visit to the Trocadéro in Paris, Moore came across a reproduction of a Toltec-Mayan chacmool figure that had been exhumed in Chichén Itza in the Yucatán. This figure would have a lasting impact on his work. These pre-Columbian Mesoamerican stone statues depict reclining human figures with their heads raised and turned to one side. Although the exact significance of the statues in Mayan culture is not known, it is thought the chacmool are personifications of river gods and are symbolic of the flowing energy of nature. As Moore developed the form of these figures, and as they became more and more refined and abstracted, they soon represented nothing but themselves. Moore’s sculptures seemed to have been shaped by nature rather than man, as if eroded by wind and rain over extended durations. Moore can be seen as a precursor to many of the environmentally engaged artists of today, including Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy. His work taps into an appreciation of geological time and longevity, as his sculpted forms harness the mysterious power of landscape.
Bernstein makes explicit reference to various types of figure, including the reclining pose of the chacmool. He also incorporates other formal concerns and subjects that occupied Moore and Hepworth throughout their careers. There are indications of balanced, square forms; hollows that penetrate solid matter, somehow enhancing their three-dimensionality; the interplay of internal and external forms, where larger elements enclose others; there are instances of divided and conjoined visual components and explicit renderings of family groupings.
In addition to these obvious links to the work of Moore and Hepworth, Bernstein also draws upon the legacy of Cubism, the avantgarde movement pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early 20th Century. Equally inspired by the work of Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne – especially the latter’s breakdown of landscape into cylindrical, spherical and conical areas of paint – as by African, Micronesian and Native American artefacts, Cubism absorbed influences from primitive art as part of its radically new approach to perception. The Cubists moved away from mechanised or static viewpoints, emphasising the visual dynamism of any encounter with an object in the world. Subjects were broken up, analysed and reassembled in abstract form. Multiple viewpoints were presented at once, resulting in compositions filled with intersecting surfaces and ambiguous space. Bernstein’s use of such multi-faceted planar surfaces, combined with his implementation of different surface textures and collage – including pieces of string, cardboard and newspaper clippings – recalls the Synthetic Cubism later popularised by the Spanish artist Juan Gris.
The fact that Bernstein juxtaposes the sculptural elements of Moore and Hepworth with the visual deconstruction of Cubism indicates the boldness of his approach. In some ways these would seem to be incompatible partners – pulling a ‘scene’ apart into flattened planes and establishing volumes and cavities within solid forms. Yet this apparent contradiction is in fact indicative of Bernstein’s method of taking motifs from Modernist sculpture and re-evaluating them through contemporary Cubist sensibilities: a method that explores different types of depth, both actual – in the physical additions of collage – and virtual – as intimated through paint. Bernstein’s technique owes more to the Cubists than the sculptors. Moore’s use of wax crayon, and the resultant blotchy coverings of pigment are absent. The medium is instead oil paint and mixed media, with one suggesting potential forms in the other. The technique of using combed textures in thick layers of paint again echoes surfaces seen in many of Moore’s maquettes and wall reliefs (such as that commissioned for Diergaardesingel, Rotterdam in 1955), yet the selected areas of shade and deliberate geometrical washes are techniques that are Bernstein’s own. They make the images even more evocative by suggesting sunbeams and other light effects.
The enduring fascination for Modernist sculpture and painting – including Moore, Hepworth and the Cubist artists – goes some way to explaining why people respond to Bernstein’s paintings so strongly. They are becoming increasingly collectible because they connect with something fundamental concerning the placement of people in their physical surroundings and in relation to their internal worlds.
Written by Dr. John Roberts