Perhaps most of all for the women who lived it, the happy homemaker femininity of the 1950s — or at least, its presence as a myth, regardless of how the ideal played out in real kitchens — may have seemed a puzzle. Literally, a jigsaw-like interlocking of household chores and social diversions (or obligations), powered by post-war consumerism — the roots of today's multitasking parent.
In Ricky Bernstein's unusual narrative sculptures — now on view at the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg — familial memories and cultural tropes combine to paint a picture of that woman: the one who juggled laundry, supper and the afternoon coffee klatsch with aplomb — and had enough energy left over to land a strike at the evening bowling game. ("Mom," to some.) Elaborately constructed from pieces of painted glass and metal, Bernstein's scenes — akin to larger-than-life-cartoons and populated by recurring characters with names like Gladys and Lois — give form to those women's "kitchen dreams," as the exhibition title suggests.
Through August, Bernstein's visions couple with a separate showcase of painting, photography and glass sculpture — all by women — that probe ideas of feminine domesticity. Called "This Woman's Work," the adjoining exhibit engages Bernstein's in playful dialogue and perhaps invites more identification on the part of younger viewers. If Bernstein's tableaus invoke an image of femininity anchored in the mid-20th century, paintings by New York-based Amy Hill, for example, explicitly address life in the 21st. In her cheeky portraits, rendered in the style of Flemish renaissance portraiture, women alternately grip a bottle of antidepressants, a cell phone and a hand-held mirror, pulling back flesh with a hand to simulate the effects of an imminent facelift.
By contrast, Bernstein's view seems less cynical, almost idealistic, in its regard of bygone femininity — an experiential model arguably still very much alive, not least as an inheritance for the Blackberry-and-Zoloft set. How delightful to imagine for a moment, as Bernstein's narratives invite us to, that a swirl of Redi-whip atop a cup of coffee in the late afternoon or a sink full of bubbles, courtesy Joy dish soap, can soothe away troubles and worries. (After all, isn't that what dishwashers and grande caramel macchiatos are for? Perhaps some things never change.) Only the occasional narrative blip — like Gladys' surreptitious depositing of dirty dishes into the rubbish bin during a conversation with Lois, a passive-aggressive "screw this" — elicits speculation of secret housewifely rage.
Though Bernstein describes himself as a storyteller first and foremost, process geeks will flip for the elaborate construction and attention to detail lavished on each piece. Described at length in wall panels and through the use of a life-sized mock-up — a presentation that seems particularly apt given the Morean's dual identity as an art school and an exhibition space — Bernstein's process begins with the formulation of a text caption or brief storyline. Then a large-scale drawing, cut into movable component parts like heads and arms, allows the artist to manipulate and refine the composition before crafting the final pieces from aluminum and glass.
The finished project is difficult to sum up in medium-specific descriptions like sculpture, painting or "glass art." Though the latter seems like the least satisfying frame for Bernstein's work — evocative of blown vessels or cast figures — it also invites a particular appreciation of the work's distinctiveness. Shapes like a sleeve or a hand begin life as a blown glass cylinder or "muff," out of which Bernstein cuts sections that he flattens in an oven. Several steps later, the finished and, often, painted pieces make their way onto an aluminum armature, adorned with accessories like (real) watches and necklaces.
The fun is in the details — like the winking play at illusionism suggested by a glass ashtray studded with a "print" of tiny fisherman figurines embedded in small crystalline squares. Paradoxically painstaking craft humorously evokes a cheap, kitschy knick-knack — the ubiquitous 1950s plastic ashtray, given whimsically masculine flair. (Similarly, an oversized pair of purple socks in another tableau sports a fishing hook pattern.) Men, by the way, do come in for their share of the spotlight in Bernstein's world — often portrayed as hapless fellow travelers in a world dominated by women.
Though his inspiration is certainly autobiographical, Bernstein — who grew up in Providence and lives in Massachusetts — points out that his stories are less a literal depiction of his personal family life than a paean to a certain era and a certain flavor of Jewish-Italian experience.
"My father didn't help a lot, but he helped," he says. "He wasn't a total, total lamebrain."