Called Schlong Face, the cartoon Donald Trump that crops up throughout Judith Bernstein’s exhibition “Cabinet of Horrors” bears a striking resemblance to Philip Guston’s iconic 1971 and 1975 portrayals of Richard Nixon. Both figures have a penis nose and ball-sack cheeks. What most wouldn’t know is that Bernstein’s character predates Guston’s, having appeared in works like Cockman #1 (1966), where it served as a representation of Alabama governor George Wallace and a condemnation of his segregationist policies. That, at age seventy-five, Bernstein is only now receiving serious recognition for her Neo-Expressionist work reflects the uphill battle that women artists have long faced in a male-dominated art world, particularly those using explicit sexual imagery that even feminists once struggled to accept.
Bernstein gives her Cockman–cum–Schlong Face a telltale combover for the show, which comprises nineteen acrylic works on paper (some with collage) she made after Trump took office. These drawings, some of them large-scale and consisting of multiple sheets, pack an abject, painterly punch, lacerating our forty-fifth president in a humorous, graphic style. Even the orange-painted walls on which the works hang seem part of the joke, with their reference to Trump’s artificial-seeming tan and the nicknames it has provoked, like Cheeto and Orange Orangutan.
Using thick, black outlines and an acid-hued palette (reds, pinks, and yellows), Bernstein depicts Schlong Face within or alongside recurring images of the United States Capitol, dollar bills, cash registers, and swastikas. In some images, she portrays Trump in other guises, as, for instance, Count Trump, Porky Jester, or Trump Scrooge. In Seal of Disbelief (2017), she casts him as the heraldic eagle in the Great Seal of the United States, making the e pluribus unum written on the banner held in the bird’s beak seem especially ironic.
Recalling Honoré Daumier’s famous lithograph The Legislative Belly (1834), which ridiculed King Louis-Philippe’s corrupt Chamber of Deputies, two works from the show’s title series depict rows of Schlong Faces along the walls of a roughly rendered building that resembles the Capitol and appears to have opened, triptych-like, before the viewer. One of these works also incorporates photographic reproductions of Hitler and a New Yorker cartoon of a plump Trump as Miss Congeniality.
The inclusion of First National Dick from 1969—a vertical mixed-medium work on paper dominated by a red, white, and blue Capitol with a fake dollar bill affixed to its bottom and a drawing of an erect, flag-flying cock adorning its top—attests to the long-standing quality of Bernstein’s satirical practice. Five impressive charcoals from 1995 depicting individual words—fear, justice, evil, equality, and liberty—in large, heavy cursive letters do much the same, if more soberly. Lest anyone get too depressed, a vitrine filled with piggy banks, rubber pig noses, and a million dollar note with a year of the pig painted on it stands like a reminder that humor and tragedy are never far apart. For those of us still reconciling ourselves to the political realities of a Trump administration, that message, so brilliantly conveyed throughout the exhibition, is a much-needed testament to the power of comic relief.