Experimental Reviews

Iris Bernblum, "Couple in Window, New York", watercolor on archival paper, 12x16", 2020. Photo courteous of the artist. 

“If you’d like me to paint you, submit a photograph to me, nude, in your present circumstance, your name will not be revealed when it is made public.” Iris Bernblum

We were approximately a month into the pandemic when the watercolor I virtually “sat” for went up on Instagram. It was the morning and I was having another panic attack; they were coming almost daily at that point. In the early days of the pandemic, I was buried under a variety of stressors, the most prominent being living through a once-in-a-century global health crisis that was being spectacularly, almost maliciously mismanaged. But I was also in a miserable job and finishing up my second semester at community college via Zoom. Not to mention my family was fighting about my brother’s wedding and my husband was furloughed from his job. I was a control freak in a world completely out of my control. The morning my watercolor was posted I was spiraling again, and while in the throes of a free fall I stopped to check Instagram. The black and white watercolor appeared the moment I opened the app. I wasn’t tagged but I recognized myself immediately. In the painting, I’m sitting ramrod straight at my desk, facing the viewer directly. My face and head are obscured by black squiggles that mimic my hair, and my hands are folded primly on my knee. I’m completely naked, except for my socks. The instant recognition absolutely shredded me. It felt like I was being torn open. I was anonymous, but I felt exposed, vulnerable, even though I was hidden. Tucked away, and alone in a tiny second bedroom/office, no one knew I was falling apart. I wanted to scream, I wanted to faint. I wanted to crawl into Instagram and demand that it be removed immediately. But I did none of those things. Instead, I reshared the image to my stories. 

Iris Bernblum, “Writer at Desk, Chicago”, watercolor on archival paper, 12×16″, 2020. Photo courteous of the artist.

“I asked if you’d like to submit to me/ your trust was all I needed,” Iris Bernblum

They say there’s freedom in submission, in allowing someone else to take care of you and trusting that that person will handle you with care. Submission by Iris Bernblum is the book of anonymous nude watercolors from her solo show Petit Mort at Aspect/Ratio. Each of the 57 watercolors was painted from personal photos Iris solicited from her followers on Instagram with the following prompt, “If you’d like me to paint you, submit a photograph to me, nude, in your present circumstance, your name will not be revealed when it is made public.”  Through the different stories in the pages of Submissions, Iris opens windows into the raw intensity of lives in lockdown. In the individual paintings, she explores the duality of being exposed and vulnerable while also being sequestered and completely anonymous during the first months of the pandemic. 

About five months after my image was posted online, Petit Mort opened at Aspect/Ratio. It was the first show I made plans to actually go and see since the pandemic had engulfed our entire lives. At a time when there was so much media to consume, Iris’s watercolors were a pleasant diversion. From the spring through the summer I watched virtually as Iris’s project developed. Set to the backdrop of particularly frightening moments in American history, each watercolor she posted was a little pinprick of joy on my Instagram timeline. Over the months before the show, I revisited the image she created of me obsessively, attempting a sort of improvised exposure therapy to get over my feelings toward it. I thanked Iris effusively when I saw the portrait but I never quite got over my discomfort. When the time came for me to see the collection of watercolors in person, I was in a better place (thanks in large part to antidepressants) but I was still very apprehensive of being torn open again. But at the same time, I was desperate for artistic stimulation. Covid pushed everything I loved about art into the virtual realm. For months I was passively consuming art in a way that was no different than shopping online or scrolling Twitter. Walking into a gallery again on a warm autumn day was almost surreal. Unknowingly, I had become somewhat accustomed to the numbing sensation of absentmindedly scrolling through online viewing room after online viewing room. I had forgotten how it felt to see art in person, to stand in front of a work of art meticulously examining every detail. The intimacy of actively consuming a piece of art can’t be replicated effectively online. I felt reinvigorated and languid in the space, my tension eased. 

Iris Bernblum, “Artist in Bath, Chicago”, watercolor on archival paper, 12×16″, 2020. Photo courteous of the artist. 

The collections of paintings in both the show Petit Mort and in the book Submissions have a sense of polite voyeurism to them. Hanging in a gallery, the podlike images of isolation were like a wall of apartments. Seeing them all at once stirs a tiny thrill, similar to the feeling of inadvertently getting a peek into your neighbors living room when you close your blinds at night. After a year of isolation, being given access to page upon page of nude strangers going about their private lives feels foreign and taboo. Even so, the portrayals aren’t exhibitionist in their nature. There’s a softness imbued in each painting that makes them intimate but also casual and nonsexual. It’s almost comforting to see strangers doing mundane things. Taking a bath, taking selfies, doing yoga, experiences that are so intimately and intensely specific but in ways not that different at all. What’s truly catching about the collection lies in the fluid simplicity of each watercolor. There is nothing extra in any of the paintings. Each scene is suspended in space with the barest of surroundings. The figures lie reclined on couches, or posed in front of mirrors, or floating in whiteness. Bernblum doesn’t waste a single brushstroke. The bodies are sensual, unbroken curves, the details on them sparse but effective, dark little dots for nipples, a sprinkling of public hair, a tiny v-shaped knee crease. Their animal heads make each subject anonymous but they also capture the foggy high strangeness of living in a reality that didn’t quite make sense. A soft reverence is imbued in each artwork by the simplicity of the forms. The works collected in the publication transport you back to that lockdown. It takes a very competent hand to depict something traumatic without igniting a trauma response. The year 2020 was a year of global collective trauma on a small and large scale. The artist doesn’t seek to elicit pain or discomfort with her work. Instead, Iris shows us the beauty of recognizing our mutual experiences. Her respect for her subjects is evident in every stroke. 

Installation view of Iris Bernblum, “Petite Mort” at Aspect/Ratio. Image courtesy of the artist.

I wish I had thought to catalog my feelings the first and only time I saw my watercolor portrait in person. Hanging there on the gallery wall, what I recall most was that I was struck by its size. Subconsciously I must have been expecting a collection of Instagram-sized paintings suspended from the walls. But the paintings, uniform in size,  were all bigger than I expected. I’d been staring at the image of mine on my tiny phone screen for months and not once did I consider that my perception of it would be distorted. The painting wasn’t as imposing in person. On the contrary, there was a certain plainness to it in person. The little watercolor figure of me sat matter of factly among its naked brethren. In the gallery it was just another painting among paintings. I had a connection with it but also a disconnect from it. It was me in the painting sitting there haughtily, but somehow I was not mine. I think that is the moment I let it go. There wasn’t a sudden epiphany or a moment of complete clarity. But seeing it in person allowed me to detach the image from my identity. I separated it from myself and took it in as one piece of a greater show. 

Even though each painting was familiar, it was like I hadn’t actually seen them before. I marveled at the delicate specificity in her portrayal of each domestic scene, but what I remember most from that day was a feeling of camaraderie. I met the curator of the show, someone who I had been following on Instagram for months. I smoked a cigarette on the street with Iris and a few other artists and there are very few things that I enjoy more than smoking a cigarette outside of an art gallery. No one asked who was in what painting. We just laughed and chatted. Someone was excited about the reemergence of drive-in theaters. Most of us were doing at-home yoga. All of us were tired and doing our best to cope. What I remember most about that day was the utter normalcy of it. In a time of intense separation, Iris managed to bring people together.

I submitted my photo on a whim, I wasn’t even nude in the picture.  When I hit send, I gave Iris more than I realized. Unwittingly, I gave her a piece of my identity to mold and shape as she saw fit. In doing so I gave her all of my trust. What she gave back to me was more than I could have asked for. In the watercolor, she showed me through her eyes, she showed me care, and a depiction of myself I had not ever seen. In doing so I was able to let go of something. They say the difference between naked and nude is vulnerability. Naked implies that a person is unprotected or vulnerable. Nude is unclothed. In my watercolor, I feel naked. More than a year later when I look at it now I see the tension in my shoulders and posture. I see everything that was weighing me down then. But I also see the gently rounded stroke of my thigh and the crease in my elbow. It’s strange to have a memento to one of the darkest moments of my life. Nonetheless, I am honored to be a part of this project. At the end of the book, Bernblum lists anonymous credits for her submissions. On the page, I’m among artists and chefs and poets and linguists, from Michigan to Chicago to San Francisco and Vietnam. There again she reminds me that I’m not alone.