When the 2012 Olympics begin next week, a print by Indiana University Bloomington Professor Edward Bernstein will be on display in London. Illuminata (right), a mixed media archival inkjet print and soft pastel on Hahnemuhle German Etching paper (40″x 60″), was selected in for a competitive international exhibition at London’s Barbican Centre, sponsored by the Chinese Olympic Fine Arts Committee, since Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics.
The ethereal lights of chandeliers featured in Illuminata are an element in several of Bernstein’s recent works. His prints employing chandelier lights are artful and elegant, but there is much behind their play of light and dark. In 2004, Bernstein, professor of art and printmaking at IU Bloomington’s Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts (a part of the College of Arts and Sciences), talked with IU’s Research & Creative Activity magazine. Here’s an excerpt in which Bernstein explains and reflects on his work inspired by the prismatic light of chandeliers and the impact of the September 11, 2001 attacks:
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 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.
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 Provost 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 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. 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.
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.
Bernstein’s chandelier prints 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.
Bernstein has an aversion to overt propaganda—or overt anything—in art, however. “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. “Audience reaction has been very positive,” says Bernstein. “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.”