You stand at the top of the platform, miles above the petrified crowd. Eyeing the trapeze, you breathe in, breathe out and jump.
Iris Bernblum took a big leap in 2016. So far, this year has presented several exhibitions to the artist, opportunities that are a cathartic amalgamation of years working in the studio. February saw “I’ll Be Here” at Aspect/Ratio. In April, “Struck” at Terrain Exhibitions, and in May, “Today is a New Day” at the Chicago Artists Coalition. Her work is currently on view as part of Weinberg/Newton Gallery’s “Your Body is a Battleground” exhibition.
While in conversation with Bernblum, she expressed the poignancy of the writings of William Pope L., and in particular the title of his 2014 book “Showing Up to Withhold” and the intriguing discord that phrase ponders; an invitation, a welcome, yet offered with confident reticence. There’s an unmistakable tension and release in Bernblum’s’ work. The lungs fill with air and exhale. The female form is significant in her art, evincing a complex push and pull between self-sabotage and fanciful magic.
Bernblum is an exceptional writer and this medium a precursor to much of her work. It’s an intuitive process for her, flowing naturally as stream of consciousness prose yet maintaining a compelling, dare I say, traditional narrative. Characters interact and evolve and motifs are established within her work much as they would in any fiction. Bernblum’s most recent films featured in both her shows at Aspect/Ratio and CAC see a transition from earlier work. Leaving the director/actor sphere, “I’ll Be Here” and “Today is a New Day” see text superimposed upon serene panning shots of woods and synthetic reds, blues and yellows which wash over and drip down the gallery’s partition wall. She tells stories of mothers and daughters, imaginary friends, ferocious lions to be tamed and the nurturing embrace of the elephant matriarch. There is ambiguity in her work, but she always extends a warm invitation to the crowd. Many of these narratives have been incubating within her studio for years, only recently finding their place within this body of work, with which they coincide flawlessly.
The installations and photographs that accompany Bernblum’s films build on the fantastical and precarious world she has constructed. The large sculpture “Struck,” exhibited on the front lawn at Sabina Ott’s Terrain Exhibitions, plays homage to the myth of the unicorn and the animal’s associations with female purity while it also offers a less than subtle allusion to male virility.
“Today is a New Day” puts art in a three-ring circus. The audience is invited to marvel at feats of skill and showmanship and the spectacle of glamourous self-annihilation. Bernblum’s work thrives on implausible, self-inflicted vulnerability, the kind reserved for high-wire acts and lion tamers. A figure takes the posture of a frightened ostrich, head buried firmly in the soil, a debunked myth and profound expression of the illogical defense mechanisms of humankind. “It Feels Good to be Clean” is written on the gallery wall—a relatable feeling of ecstasy, as we are lifted from the mud of the ring and washed clean by the mother elephant’s trunk. Bernblum is the ringleader and we watch with bated breath as the performance begins. (Noah Hanna)
Iris Bernblum is represented by Aspect/Ratio Gallery (119 North Peoria) and has a studio at Mana Contemporary (2233 South Throop). Her work is featured in “Your Body is a Battleground” at Weinberg/Newton Gallery, 300 West Superior, through June 9.