Upon entering Aspect / Ratio Projects in Chicago to meet up and speak with artist Iris Bernblum; I immediately took flight, having a physical and emotional response to the screen-printed triptych of eagles locked in a Death Spiral rocketing toward the ground. The atmospheric recording of bird sounds throughout the space, the video projected directly in front of me fills my head with an air of freedom. I quickly assume my position in the flock of ardent admirers of her latest bodies of work.
Ally Fouts: Iris, I’m confronted with three large screen-prints, titled Death Spiral. The images of these eagles, twisted and contorting, step off the canvas and beg me to ask; what am I looking at?
Iris Bernblum: “I’ve always been interested in the way we as humans project ourselves onto the natural world. I played with that a lot in past work. A year ago, somebody sent me a film of these bald eagles in their courting ritual, which is what this is, and the man who saw this phenomenon happen called it the ‘Death Spiral.’ It was really interesting to me that these eagles, which court midair, fall while they are doing this kind of dance, and then they let go. The decision to call the ritual ‘Death Spiral’ was very revealing in terms of attachment, love, and commitment as they mate for life. So, I started thinking about the psychological space of these eagles and the death spiral. Originally, Death Spiral was an entire show scheduled for this past March in a different space; then quarantine hit and the show was canceled.”
AF: The title of the exhibition, Petite Mort, caught my attention. I’m curious as to its relationship with the work, how did you reach this decision for the title of the show?
IB: “Before quarantine hit, I was inviting models to the studio to paint from, thinking more about my own fantasy and of merging the animal and the human. ‘Petite-Mort’ meaning ‘orgasm’ in French, and also translates to ‘tiny-death.’. This idea around desire, pleasure, and fear just made sense to me.”
AF: This watercolor of a nude figure is faceless and relaxed, with a finger lazily pointing downward. Is it a continuation of Death Spiral?
IB: “I hadn’t painted a figure in a long, long time, and I wanted to get back to it. I wanted to know what it would feel like to invite a male model into my studio; I was a little bit afraid. I was looking at images online and trying to find different source material, and my friend was like, ‘Iris, why don’t you just invite a male model into the studio?’ and I was like ‘Oh my god.’ For me, it was something I didn’t really feel I could allow myself to do. My first attempt was a friend. He was totally in my control: I positioned him, I forced his finger to point. He was just the beginning, and I got really excited about it. But then, quarantine happened, and I couldn’t be in the same space with people anymore.”
“Then, during quarantine, I am at home with my family. I have two kids and a husband. I didn’t want to stop, so I asked my husband to pose for me, and he did. I didn’t even have to ask my daughter, she was begging me to paint her. I thought: what happens if I post this question on Instagram? I’ve never done anything where my process is so visible and open. I’ve always worked with ideas around performance so it made sense to do this; it became this collaboration I wasn’t expecting. First of all, I didn’t ever think this was going to turn into a show, so I didn’t have that fear. I didn’t expect anything...
I just posted and said if you would like me to paint you, please send a nude of yourself in your current circumstance, not a glamour shot. I got over 70 submissions.
A little over thirty watercolors stared back at us; we began talking about her piece, Submission.
AF: I’m noticing that each canvas encapsulates its own character, who are they?
IB: “About 65% were people that I knew; the rest were people that I didn’t know or had not been in touch with for over 20 years. Many had no idea were paying attention or following me on Instagram. That part was really beautiful, I have to say. That level of trust; not a single person asked me to delete the image after they sent it. There was never a question if I would out them, there was the promise of anonymity. It was a really beautiful experience at a time that I was feeling really lonely. Everyone was feeling that way, it (the pandemic) was so sudden. I started to paint these people based on what they sent; I decided how they would be masked and what elements to keep in and take away. I was thinking about what submission means in its purest form; to truly submit. We are always being asked to submit, there is always this vulnerability, in this sense, the submission came with a certain amount of trust and longing to be touched. Throughout the process of receiving these, I was shocked at the number of people who wanted it…I got to touch them. What is the difference between sending me a photograph to be painted…why would you want to be painted at a time like this? It is because, on some level, you want that care. For me to sit there and paint them, to take the time, and really consider all of the details of their body and physical presence was really intimate to me. It was really two or three hours out of my day that was just between the subject and myself as if nobody else existed.”
“There is also a strong sense of sexuality here, but it’s not the overarching theme. More than half of my models were people that would most likely never send a nude selfie. I have images from mothers of four, grandmothers, children; It was very intense I have to say. It was really consuming, beautiful, and collaborative in a way that I haven’t been before. I have to fight with myself a little bit about what I owe these people; it didn’t seem that anybody wanted anything more than just to be seen.”
“Each model holds a secret…often, they came with one. Many wanted to give me a reason why or to talk about how they were feeling; I am not going to share, but I now know all of them.”
AF: What was your reason for picking watercolor?
IB: “I am kind of an anxious person, and I love working with watercolor because you don’t have time to think. You have to keep moving and don’t always know what you’re going to get, you are completely present.”
AF: Being painted is certainly a seductive concept; I can hardly think of anything more flattering than someone spending time considering each crease of a body and deliberately and delicately translating that to the canvas. Was this a point of intrigue to the participating subjects?
IB: “Some people want the paintings. I ultimately want to produce a book of them because I do want people to have them and have them be accessible. Nobody had any expectations that I was going to give them the painting, they just wanted to be a part of the project.”
As a notable excitement crept into Bernblum’s voice; she beamed up at the paintings, and continued on…
IB: “I am a little too emotionally attached to them. I am still doing them, I’m not done. I feel obligated to paint every single person who sent one. It’s so raw- I have never had a show where the work is still in process; I am still so close. I thought I was going to show the work from the canceled show from March, but the conversation felt the same; it felt like what I was doing here naturally morphed into one atmosphere.”
“Though I have more watercolors, these were the paintings that made sense in the show. I couldn’t show everything, I wanted to show more, but I also wanted it to be a conversation that was accessible and not overwhelming. I chose this arrangement you see here because I had a lot of people in the same position. I wound up with several images that have a lot of modesty in them. When people would send a very modest photograph, I would take the time to negotiate with them. If it was someone I knew and I felt like their position did not speak to their person, I would talk to them about it. Usually that conversation ended in a lovely result.”
AF: The faces of each subject are unrecognizable in who they are, and what they are. The line between human and animal begins to blur, but the direction that each figure is looking lingers. Can you expand on this?
IB: “I am interested in this morphing of human and animal, and it was an intuitive decision of what I would do with the faces. This then became part of their story; the face is gone, but it is still projecting emotion.”
“I have been thinking a lot about mirroring; a lot of the images are selfies in the mirror. I was thinking about wanting to be seen, how you choose to be seen, and how you see yourself. What’s reflected back? It all goes back to self-projection for me.”
Bernblum and I rush over to the screen-prints on the wall, for a second, I am reminded of the bird recording that is playing. The ambient chirping sound had become so much a part of the atmosphere of the room, that I forgot that we were actually inside.
AF: Can you say a little more about the images of the eagles and the decision to have a recording of birds chirping in the space?
IB: “This is the way the photograph was taken originally, which implies photographically that this is the dominant eagle; the bottom bird is just along for the ride. However, if you flip it, the dominant bird then becomes vulnerable.”
“The synthetic bird sound you hear is a sleep machine I have at home. I have birds playing, especially at this time while everyone is locked inside because I really love to be out in nature; it is my most calming space. I love this kind of synthetic and natural sound being in this space, the people in here are transformed into birds.”
Looking to my left at the projected Mirror, Mirror, video on the West wall, we both take a moment to stare into the ambiguous sunset/sunrise abyss.
AF: Can you talk to me about your thought process with Mirror, Mirror?
IB: “The video is really playing with ‘mirror, mirror, on the wall’. I was thinking about mirroring, again. The image in the video is really subtly flowing in reverse. The only way you can really tell is that the bird is flying backward in the end. It is important for me to have this voice in the video included, I can make these images, but I need a textual voice, a poetic moment in the work that I feel like is coming from my gut.”
AF: I’m somewhat bemused at how three starkly different pieces of work can be placed in the same space while simultaneously leaving me unable to think of them in a space where they are not in conversation with one another. Was it a difficult process deciding what pieces to include in this show given the vast difference from piece to piece?
IB: “I was told during studio visits that I shouldn’t put these three pieces in one space like this; that each was too strong. To me, they are three separate pieces; this is my language, I thought if I put them together, the viewer will just have to understand my language. It is really scary to listen to yourself sometimes.”