“Gerry Bergstein: Dithering Machines” at Boston’s Gallery Naga from September 5 to 30, 2023, can give the feeling of peeking in a Renaissance master’s sketchbook imaginings of the end of the world. The paintings seem to depict ruins, a leaning tower with mushrooming growths, people peering at what looks like a crashed space station, the dim ruins of the Tower of Babel as painted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the 1560s.
“The works in this show are absurdist twists on Breugel’s ‘Tower of Babel’ and Piranesi’s destroyed architecture rotting into the landscape,” Bergstein writes. Babel is a fable about people going too far, building a city and tower reaching up into the heavens, and God scattering them and muddling their languages so they could no longer understand each other. For Bergstein, it becomes a metaphor for the recklessness of our times.
The paintings, Bergstein adds, “They are also homages to art and artists I’ve loved from 1960 until now. To list a few- Leonardo’s late disaster drawings, Arshile Gorky’s erotic biomorphism, sci-fi illustrations of landscape as body, the poetic abysses of Lee Bontecou’s early sculpture, Saul Steinberg’s hilarious paradoxes, Jean Tinguely’s giant self-destroying machines, Nicole Eisenman’s virtuosic tragi-comic humanism cartoon graffiti, Wangechi Mutu’s extraordinary collages, and Thornton Dial’s great assemblages, and of course Philip Guston.”
A gallery walk-through with Bergstein will take place on Saturday, Sept. 23 at 2 pm. No RSVP required.
The Cambridge artist has taught at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts since 1982, where he received his BFA in 1969 and MFA in 1971. His paintings can feel as if he’s trying to piece worlds back together from shards of the ruins, or at least piles of magazine clippings, or of all the thoughts and anxieties racing through his mind. Over the years, he’s painted anatomical hearts on barren planets and skies swarming with airplanes, sandwiches, spoons, pancakes, paintbrushes, knives. He’s painted bouquets of flowers and bits of art history (Matisse women, Lucien Freud self-portraits, Van Gogh postman, Renoir and Beckman couples dancing, Hopper weary figures, John Currin). He’s made trompe-l’oeil paintings resembling pasted together maps. He’s painted howling, clowning self-portraits (a 2001 painting was titled “Screams Throughout Art History”). Sometimes it seems as if he’s discovering the cosmos in the paint-splattered studio floor.
“In Bergstein’s wry, neurotic, and celebratory trompe l’oeil mixed-media paintings, art is a metaphor for life, messy and fecund; the studio is a site for creation and, with its layers of encrusted paint and history, excavation,” Cate McQuaid has written in The Boston Globe.
Bergstein writes of the paintings in the new exhibition, “I want the works to appear to be fragments of partly destroyed ancient documents reassembled by incompetent restorers. Or perhaps they are documents of our time reassembled by future generations. I’m interested in the provisional, the contingent, the accidental as well as the planned. I’m an accident-prone control freak. I want to reflect my studio practice in which I often spend hours looking for things I’ve misplaced only to find them useless when I find them. The trial-and-error process often means the work takes a couple of years to complete. There is an awful lot of dithering going on here both in my life and the world. Why all this complication? What are the little men in a few of the pictures trying to do? Perhaps trying to save a world they’re destroying. Even though the world is full of dire emergencies, many people, including me, live our lives as though things are normal. But what is “normalcy” in an age of ecological disaster, extreme sexism and racism, plagues, and war? We dither along as best we can. It has always been thus. Human culture is a beautiful miracle, and a suicidal and homicidal disaster. But I am not a pessimist. To paraphrase Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘Hap,’ my world is accidentally strewn pains and blisses. I hope the work shows not only bleakness but the love, delight, and humor I experience while making it.”
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