This show is an exploration of the self portrait, an algorithmic self portrait: What we seek out, how it is reflected back to us, a new kind of portrait of the self, a commodified reflection of desire, longing and release, perhaps not always the one we want to see - but one we cannot seem to escape. -- Iris Bernblum
Goldfinch is thrilled to present its second exhibition with Iris Bernblum, and Bernblum's first solo show with the Gallery. "Various Pleasures" features approximately ten new watercolor, graphite and acrylic works on paper along with six new sculptures whose forms echo that of the artists' own body at various moments in life. Some of the sculptures are made from paraffin wax, custom scent and custom color while others are formed with plaster, with the addition of wigs, jewelry, and artificial flowers.
"This show is an exploration of the self portrait, an algorithmic self portrait: What we seek out, how it is reflected back to us, a new kind of portrait of the self, a commodified reflection of desire, longing and release, perhaps not always the one we want to see - but one we cannot seem to escape," explains Bernblum.
Of the works, the artist says that "for me, these pieces are kind of a mash-up of 'aspirational everything.' I knew from the beginning I wanted them to be candle adjacent…but not candles. I wanted them to hold scent and have weight, like the body, but behave like a design object. I didn’t initially know how the wax was going to work. It’s the first time I’ve used it as a material, and after a pretty intense learning curve, I fell in love with it. I love its texture, which is almost skin-like. I love the way it holds color and scent, and I love the play on both wax figures and candles."
Based in Chicago, Bernblum works across disciplines and media to create conceptually based work influenced by her interest in psychoanalysis. She explores ideas around human nature, power and vulnerability, focusing primarily on the way we frame our sense of self in regard to gender, sexuality, pleasure and desire. Bernblum has a strong investment in performative based work, although more as a voyeur than an actor, and she always invites her viewers to play a role in interpreting what they see.
Works in Various Pleasures are arranged in a manner that nods to living rooms and other domestic environs. "Each piece will be placed almost like décor…a kind of beautiful, violent décor," Bernblum notes. "I’ve also been thinking a lot about ‘taste’. 'Good taste,' 'bad taste,' and the ways these ideas affirm and display our place in society. I guess for me, ultimately, I think of them as a play on the design object. They’re something between beautiful and revolting. I like that space in-between. It’s very generative for me."
Iris Bernblum would like to extend a very special thank you to Romi Crawford, Lucy Wood Baird, Janine Larivier, Randy Myers, Blair Taylor, Benjamin Tischer, Alissa Schapiro and Mat Mancini, "for helping to make my dream a reality."
A CONVERSATION BETWEEN IRIS BERNBLUM AND CURATORIAL DIRECTOR ELIZABETH LALLEY
Elizabeth Lalley: The exhibition title, “Various Pleasures,” operates on different levels for me. There’s the multiplicity of “pleasure,” suggested, but I also like the somewhat casual nature of it. “Various” feels so loose, like you’re just gesturing around, off-handedly. It doesn’t convey any hierarchy or value. A lot comes to mind, and I find myself thinking about something we’ve talked about before, in terms of scrolling through social media and seeing “pleasure” packaged and sold back to us.
It’s funny to me that my feed recommends products or vitamins I could buy or apps I could subscribe to 1) increase my libido or 2) have better orgasms, or 3) be more in touch with my body and desires or 4) calm my mind and thoughts. But they’re being fed to me based on what I click on or “like” or follow or even scroll past, all through this cold little object in my hand that isn’t exactly sexy or erotic or sensual in itself.
So, I’m on guard when I see pleasure presented to me through these digital feeds, even when some of the offerings feel so niche and tailored and, frankly, like they’re speaking *right to me*. I’m skeptical, too, of the idea of pleasure as something to be mobilized. But I also appreciate these broad conversations about pleasure as something expansive and nuanced and for everyone…democratized, for lack of a better word, in different ways. Pleasure as something out in the open and embraced, rather than regulated to “guilt.” I know there’s a question in here somewhere, or maybe many of them…maybe all I’m really asking is: How do you think about this multiplicity of pleasure through your work? Pleasure as an idea, an experience, a power-dynamic? Pleasure the idea versus pleasure felt or given?
Iris Bernblum: I love this question. The title, “Various Pleasures,” was the starting point. It served as a frame for a free-associative investigation of the experience of pleasure seeking, consumption, desire, and release, within the confines of the digital space. I think by slowing down and translating what was being delivered to me via drawing / painting, it created a space for me to get some distance and really consider what was happening. Pleasure is complicated; it’s personal, private…or so we like to think. Pleasure seeking on the other hand is a highly profitable space. An easily commodified space. But the way we experience this is something else all-together. I think defining it is difficult. It’s so hardwired into us here in the US—this desire to be happy or satisfied at all times. The idea that we somehow deserve certain types of pleasure. I think the end result of this is a kind of endless longing: a finish line that is always just a little too far away, a carrot at the end of a stick. And that’s where the power comes in, in the commodification, in this illusion that we have absolute agency in these kinds of spaces. The way everything gets flattened in the algorithm generally leaves us feeling empty.
Pleasure given vs pleasure felt….I think I’ll switch it to pleasure delivery vs. felt pleasure. In my experience, real meaningful moments of felt pleasure are generally unexpected, small moments that cannot be controlled or delivered. I think that often we try to circumvent this to gain some control, but more often than not it falls flat. I don’t think we can control it. It just happens when it does, and it’s always a beautiful surprise.
EL: I’m fascinated by the dynamic between the central sculptures in this exhibition: two white, plaster figures of different ages. First, “Happy Baby,” an adult female figure, on their back on a glass coffee table, in a what could be a yoga pose, a sex position,birth. And the other, “12,” a young female, standing beside the table. The sculptures are made from foam and Epoxy—coated thinly with plaster to smooth the surfaces—and then painted white. Both figures are wearing gold jewelry. There are salmon-y pink nipples painted on both, and painted fingernails on the adult. They don’t have facial features, but their figures feel so solid and defined, and I feel like I understand something happening between them—though I know what I’m seeing is not what other might see. I’m fascinated by the reversal of roles or expectations of age and maturity. It feels like the younger figure is some sort of guardian or sage, standing by while the older, more “mature” figure is enacting physical pleasure, joy, celebration overtly—nakedly—without self-consciousness. There’s something measured in the younger figure and much wilder, freer in the other. I love the idea of their dynamic sort of undoing the trappings or expectations or restrictions that can be imposed by growing older, even if many are false constructions.
You’ve described these figures as self-portraits at different stages of life, and you’ve also spoken, personally, about no longer wanting to ask for permission. How are you thinking about age and stages of life through these figures?
IB: When I’m working on something, I’m generally so deep in that I don’t have any distance as to what it is exactly. It’s an exploration, a question, something I need to get to the end of. I didn’t realize, until about halfway through working on these pieces, that they were in fact self-portraits. I think the entire show is one big self-portrait. In a way, all of my work is, but in this show, it’s especially true. Those figures in particular are the most intimate for me. The fact that you can see my hand in the making…their soft clumsiness…the fact that I had to massage them slowly into being…they feel almost too close. They scare me a bit. I find I’m most excited when work leaves me in a place of discomfort. Not repellent discomfort; more of the uncanny. And, yes, in my 47-years-of-life on this earth I am tired of asking for permission. These sculptures are a direct result of that. I feel the adult figure is powerful, in the way she presents herself, but she’s also completely self-consumed. The position is open-ended. Yes, the title is “Happy Baby,” as in the yoga position, but it’s a play on that, speaking also to sex, birth, and everything else a woman of my age has gone through and needs to release. Maybe? I’m still figuring it out…I almost don’t want to know. It’s too close.
The 12yr old is even more unnerving for me because I find her so impenetrable. Yes, I made her, but I don’t know her. I suppose some part of me was thinking: what would my younger self think of me now? But that’s not entirely it. I made them separately, but when I placed them side-by-side, I felt magic happen. It’s very open to interpretation, and I don’t want to shut that down.
My daughter is also 12 right now. Watching my kids grow has always been hugely inspiring to me. This age - the beginning of a transformation. The 12yr old is powerful somehow, even though it would seem that she would feel very vulnerable, a young nude in a pubescent state. But no, as you mentioned, she holds the power. Perhaps it’s similar to the way my daughter holds power over me. I’m still processing. I’ll be processing likely until the end of this show.
EL: There’s a series of sculptures in this show—body parts (legs, a torso, partial arms)—all cast from the same mannequin, in layers of wax. The wax is scented, too, calling to mind decorative candles or perfume on skin, and the wax is a fleshy pink, much like the nipples on the two central sculptures. Because their anatomical nature is sourced from the idealized, commercial form of a mannequin, there’s something overtly seductive about their sculpted features: the defined muscles, the large, perky breasts. But they’re repulsive, too. They’re dismembered and askew. The legs are upside-down, the torso is sitting on a decorative side-table, and both sculptures are skewered with brass poles that separate the shoulders from the torso and the feet from the legs. There’s something horrifying about them, but in the kind of thrilling way where I found I was drawn closer and closer to them—so close that my nose was almost touching the wax. The scents are subtly different between them, too, which was fascinating to me. Introducing scent brings in this new sensual aspect to the works. They’re “candle-like” but they’re not candles. They’re flesh-like, but they’re not alive.
Can you talk a little about the process of making these works, particularly in choosing to break them apart the way you have? How are you thinking about the furniture and domestic objects (like the glass vessels that are each holding and supporting the “arms”) interspersed throughout the arrangement of these sculptures?
IB: For me, these pieces are kind of a mash-up of “aspirational everything.” I knew from the beginning I wanted them to be candle adjacent…but not candles. I wanted them to hold scent and have weight, like the body, but behave like a design object. I didn’t initially know how the wax was going to work. It’s the first time I’ve used it as a material, and after a pretty intense learning curve, I fell in love with it. I love its texture, which is almost skin-like. I love the way it holds color and scent, and I love the play on both wax figures and candles.
The show will be presented as a kind of ‘living room.’ Each piece will be placed almost like décor…a kind of beautiful, violent décor. I’ve also been thinking a lot about ‘taste’. “Good taste,” “bad taste,” and the ways these ideas affirm and display our place in society. I guess for me, ultimately, I think of them as a play on the design object. They’re something between beautiful and revolting. I like that space in-between. It’s very generative for me.
EL: In thinking about this beautiful, violent décor, are the reference materials or images you had in mind or borrowed from and toyed with?
IB: The decision to put “Happy Baby” on the coffee table is a direct reference to Allen Jones’s ‘Table’ from 1969, in which a sculpture of a women on her hands and knees in fetish wear is supporting a glass tabletop.
He did a whole line of furniture like this. At the time it was a very controversial move. I’m not sure what I think of it now…it just feels a bit dated to me.
This piece is an inversion of that. The woman is on top, fully presenting herself, playful and powerful.
For me, I think the wax pieces are dialogue between decor and the body. Another kind of self-portrait…taste merging with object fetish.
EL: Like the faceless sculptures, your works on paper are mysterious in their subjecthood. In these watercolors, the subjects’ faces are often dissolved or obscured or turned away from us. With the two exceptions of a self-portrait, with your daughter, and “Timothee,” which captures a certain-but-not-exact likeness of actor “Timothee Chalamet,” there is an anonymity to the figures in these works, even when they are titled with a certain exactness (ie “Caleb.”) I love “Him” and “Her,” as titles. They’re completely anonymous, but isolated as a single pronoun, they’re strangely specific, too. It’s a particular “her” and a particular “him.”
Can you talk a little about the source material for these pieces? How are you thinking about anonymity, and about voyeurism, through these works?
IB: The way I began thinking about this show was through the watercolor works. At the time I had just finished a project where I had set a lot of limitations for myself and I really wanted to break free from that. I told myself that titling the show “Various Pleasures,” would give me a kind of large umbrella under which to play. The way I started was to just paint whatever I wanted—whatever stimulated me—and at the time a lot of what was stimulating me was being delivered through my phone. It could have been the “photo of the day” (like my baby daughter) or a private photo delivered to me. I painted it all. Whatever struck me. Over time I started paying more attention to this play, this escape, which kind of circumvented itself. And I think as I mentioned earlier, I was slowing down and translating what was being delivered to me. The translation is murky. I’m still trying to understand it.
I’m not sure I think much about anonymity, I think it’s just interesting to me to keep things open. Specificity on some level shuts it down. I want to allow for projection, I’m very interested in projection.
Voyeurism, on the other hand, I am interested in. I think we all are. That’s why social media works; we can all spy on one another and it’s allowed. But I’ve always been a watcher. All my work is inspired from lived life. There’s not a lot of separation between my life and my work in regards to the content. That’s something I love. A kind of brutal, poetic honesty.
EL: Several of the figures in the watercolors are touching themselves, and seem to be doing so performatively rather than privately. Two figures are kissing; another pair is wrestling. There’s a through-line of oral fixation.There are “various pleasures” enacted here. The watercolors are also “gilded” in a way, through beautiful, and often subtle, additions of gold— primarily as the jewelry worn by the figures. I love how the consistency of these visual choices brings all of these mysterious people and moments into the same universe, in a way. They all look like they belong to the same world, because of your particular touch in rendering them, but I don’t feel compelled to think about these people in relation to each other. To me, they feel contained in their own private snapshots. I can imagine pleasure in the making of these works, but there is also a sensitivity and sense of empathy towards the pleasures of others—a pleasure in witnessing the pleasure of others.
How do you maintain a certain consistency of touch with these works, while also allowing yourself to enter the intimate spaces and particular moods of these people?
IB: You’re making me blush. I love everything you just said here. Now I’m thinking about the performance of sexuality. Yes, many of the images are of people performing for a camera. Contained. Safely away from any real touch. The viewing of them is real though. The projection is real, and, in a way, the offering is also real. For me, as I mentioned earlier, there is a translation that happens from the image to the paper: it’s a place where I get to touch them. Painting and drawing is a form of touch, a private pleasure, a slowing down, a connection. But in the end, for me, the images seem to be some kind of algorithmic self-portrait. They’re attempts at weaving through it all and landing on things that feel, for lack of a better word…honest.