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“Art Is a Way of Life”: An Interview with Martin Bernstein

Martin Bernstein's studio. Entry to "the paint room." November 2011. (Image courtesy of Andrew Roddewig.)

Martin Bernstein’s studio is probably one of the best artist studios you will ever visit in your entire life. At least, any artist studio that elicits the seemingly universal reaction of “Whoa. It’s like Pirates of the Caribbean in here…” deserves accolades. To describe the space as drenched with drips of paint would be an understatement—it’s more like a deluge. And it’s not just paint. Layer upon layer, texture upon texture, heavy fabric hangs as if weighed down by age and memory, and tendrils of beads and cords and lights all intertwine and meander, vine-like, throughout the room as if left to their own devices for centuries. This is where Martin works and lives. People have always told him that he lives in a dream world. His response? Rather than meeting such criticism with resignation, he found a way to bring his world into the one everyone else obeys. “Instead of adapting myself to reality,” said Martin, “I adapt reality to me.”

Martin grew up in Cincinnati and went to college in Michigan, and, because the art scenes there were practically nonexistent, he would have to travel in order to see an art show, and he has been traveling ever since. He spent most of his adult career in California; ended up living in Florida for 12 years to tend to his father, who had fallen ill; and, following his father’s death, packed up and lived the next 4 years without an address before settling down in Chicago.

On a sunny November afternoon, I sat with Martin and we chatted about how he hasn’t been on a plane—and thus hasn’t left the lower 48—in 16 years because of his dog Astro, how we’re all connected, how art is a consciousness, how great art doesn’t give you all the answers, how you must look inside yourself to define who you are, and how, really, there’s no such thing as reality. “Whoa” indeed.

Martin’s studio is located on the 3rd floor of the Zhou B Art Center in Chicago. It may or may not be open at this week’s 3rd Friday event.

Martin does, however, have an upcoming jewelry show in San Francisco at Wilkes Bashford (375 Sutter St., San Francisco, CA 94108, 415.986.4380) on December 1st and 2nd.

Martin Bernstein's studio. "The paint room." November 2011. (Image courtesy of Andrew Roddewig.)

Jenny Lam: Have you been doing this kind of work before you came here, or did being in this space inform that kind of practice?

Martin Bernstein: Everybody who’s seen my different studios, and I see, it’s the same. I didn’t understand it as much as I do now—the spatial character of it—but it’s evolved, and it’s gotten tighter, or better, just like when you get more skilled at something or understand it better. But my early work looks like it does now. I looked around or had these environments, where there weren’t any sort of inhabitants, and that’s when I started to do clothes and jewelry and things to create creatures, and at first it was the last reality. It was always about “more.” I wasn’t like an artist like, “Oh I need to make a living, so I’ll make jewelry on the side, and then I’ll just do my art.” It grew out of a need to say something in an entire context of what I was doing. The trip opened up where I wasn’t just going to galleries or museums or art centers; I was going to jewelry stores or clothing stores, and so my sort of thinking of the way things are done is you find what you need to do and what you had, for your soul, kind of thing, what you are, and then you figure out how to make that work, like follow that, fit that. You’ve got to find out who you are, and follow that.

Martin Bernstein's studio. November 2011. (Image courtesy of Andrew Roddewig.)

JL: Could you describe the process that goes into your work / describe your work in general?

MB: When I first moved here, they were still working on the building and there was dust everywhere. It didn’t matter if my work was going to get dusty, because to me, dust is time anyway. Even on the paintings, with this gold and platinum and silver mica that I use, it’s about time, and as opposed to dust settling, it’s valuable, so it gives you the illusion of gold and silver and valuable time.

I think of [my work] as a stream of consciousness, especially what I have this space where I can put it together in physical form, is the lamps grow out of this tree, and you can say that’s a fruit but it’s a light, there’s like an object on the wall and there’s like these connective cords, and to me, everything’s connected. We’re all connected. We have our physical self here, but I think there’s an invisible connection to all life and all things universal. As your call to me, that you wanted to do this because you had seen this and sort of “Oh, this interests me” and those are sort of invisible connections and our thoughts, like words don’t go from here to here, but it does, and I think everything is like this. So I treat things as an individual element that can be finished, but I also want to see how it all… Early on in my career, I had work coming out of me that looked like I was schizophrenic. I didn’t see the connection. And when I would go to galleries and museums they wouldn’t see it at all, and they wanted me to take something and do it and stick to it, that way I’d rather let my own organic timeframe find and that will happen, and I trust that will happen.

Martin Bernstein's studio. November 2011. (Image courtesy of Andrew Roddewig.)

Now the valleys got filled in, and I see the connections, I see how it’s all the same hand, I see the treatment of the chains and all these drips are like connections and things coming apart and things growing out of the phoenix out of the ashes. I see that in the texture of the two-dimensional. At the same time, when I’m looking at the two-dimensional—or the so-called, since nothing I do is really flat—I see this is just stepping into it and I see these lines as line, or color, like a color of gray or black or red streaking across the blue screen or something. I had a teacher who I hated in college, because she would take my paintings, and she’d twist them, and just say “Just hit it! Throw paint at it!” And what she was trying to do was get my focus to stop controlling, and it was like allow your real self to just let go.

When I’m painting, or when I’m doing anything, if I’m in the right place, it has that stream of consciousness, just sort of trusting your… not thinking what you’re going to say, but trusting that you know enough that when you say it, that it’ll come out and make some sort of sense. Like when we’re younger, you have to think of the words to describe what you’re saying, like when you’re really little, how to use a fork or something, and now you just sit and eat. You don’t think about each move, and you get to that and that’s where I believe it’s happening and I sort of accept it all, and I think, if anything, it’s telling me art is a consciousness; it’s not just a physical painting or a two-dimensional thing or writing—it’s a way of life. It’s a way of looking at every single nanosecond of every day.

Martin Bernstein's studio. November 2011. (Image courtesy of Andrew Roddewig.)

JL: Because your work has so many different layers and textures, how do you know when a piece is finished?

MB: I think that’s true of everybody. A lot of times I think something’s finished and I go at it again at some point, I like to have my things in front of me, so there’s that dialogue back and forth with them, like maybe see a little spot that nobody else will see, or just doesn’t say the right thing for me. There are these ebbs and flows. And I come back after being away for four months and I just can’t wait to paint.

Daily, I’m pulling things out, putting things in, and, at this point, I’m not really looking to finish anything; I’ll pull it out and go through it, but then I go away, and so then I have all this space, and I come back and I see it with new eyes, and, like I said, I’m seeing things that I’ve gone back after years of thinking they’re finished. As an artist, you end up moving a lot; they rent your building and then they sell it to some lawyers and you have to move, and I used to have this old geometric work, and I had it all covered and protected and I’d drag it around and wherever I’d have to move I’d have to find a thousand square feet of storage before I could even think of living. And I realized that I was taking more care with work from an earlier time than, you know, it’s about now.

So I actually started to take finished pieces and use them as canvases. One, you don’t have to buy a new canvas and stretchers and all that stuff. The other thing is what was sort of underneath was me; you are who you are five days ago, five years ago, and we build on that, so I do paintings that were built on previous paintings. I’m really not making it to have a finished painting. Again, I say you have to make a living, but you’re doing it for that joy and effort and that thing you do to paint, so the fact that you take a finished piece and use it as a canvas, that’s OK with me. And then out of that, I don’t really know how the installations grew, because I really didn’t understand installation. And then I realized it’s about just being an artist, doing work, whether somebody else understands a painting as can be a baseball or a square or just a fragment of things.

Martin Bernstein's studio. Jewelry. November 2011. (Image courtesy of Andrew Roddewig.)

To me the fragmented elements of my work are like an archaeologist. Actually a lot of my work, I feel, is like an archaeologist and I’m digging up and I’m finding remnants; I’m looking to tell me a tale of me. But it’s like when we find things, say from the Egyptian culture and you find a scribe had written something that had been buried and it’s broken up and you only get so many words, and you try to imagine, you know, to me, great art isn’t something that gives you all the answers; it’s a starting point for you to then question. That’s why you take a urinal, you put it upside-down, you put it in a gallery, at a certain time, people go, “Whoa!” and it makes you think. You’re always learning. You always have to push towards something you don’t know. If you know you’re really good at something, it’s easy just to keep doing it. So the fact that I find something out there that has some interesting texture or some other reason I might not know, I just throw it in, and a lot of it gets stuck up to other things and it becomes textural, and the actual meaning of the thing may be lost. It never seemed important to me, like trompe l’oeil, to paint something, like I’m talking to you, and if I paint a picture of you sitting there, to me, that brings nothing across other than you’re sitting there. Now, I can put emotion and all that stuff with the way I present it, but it’s just taking an element from a moment, or a thing. I took a napkin, you know like we take souvenirs, in a way, and they become talismans in a way within the work, that’s sort of what I’m trying to do is talk about the real experience, not just people sitting here. It’s more about how that makes you feel and what that does to you on a subliminal, on an emotional, on an intellectual, all those levels that aren’t, the appearance of reality is not all there is. [laughter]

Martin Bernstein with Astro. May 2011. (Image courtesy of Randy Korwin.)

JL: How do you choose which everyday objects to include? Do you look for anything in particular?

MB: I never know. It’s the same thing with knowing when something’s finished. Some things just have, like the baseballs, he [Astro] just started bringing them back, and I relate to baseball and all that, and we’d go to the parks and bring them back and I saw them as canvases, and I also saw them as our life and where we are and all that, so they became an element. A lot of stuff that I use or that I bought, sometimes it’s secondhand with stains and stuff. In the beginning I’d buy secondhand suitcases, and I’d hate looking at them, so I started putting a patina on them, but then that grew. That really was a starting place. It was more about leaving your fingerprints on stuff, declaring, “I’ve been there. I’ve slept there. I did this.”

So it’s taking things from my mother, and people have a hard time with that, that I’ll put something that meant something to me in an object and then sell it. To me, it’s an homage; it’s not like, “Oh I have to hold on to this,” and then some things might be you’re attached to something. When you’re a kid and you don’t want to give up those sneakers, and they’re all torn and smelly and your mother just throws them out, you wanted them, even though they didn’t work anymore, but they functioned as something better, as a history, as that connection. I want to touch on that in everything I can possibly do, every way. Just because I say at some point I think something’s finished or doesn’t mean it’s right. And actually there’s a lot of stuff that now has come out, like that fret work and all that. […] Again, it goes back to trusting when you don’t really know. You just feel it’s the right direction to go in.

Martin Bernstein. May 2011. (Image courtesy of Randy Korwin.)

JL: It’s great that you mentioned personal histories and memories. I’m sure you get this a lot too, but a lot of people who have visited your studio—and I also feel this way—say that it reminds them of a sunken pirate ship, or they’re opening up a treasure chest and find all these old artifacts. Because you also live here, how do you feel about such a direct audience interaction? How do you feel about people coming into your own world, opening up these personal treasures? It’s not just your studio.

MB: I hate it, in a way. The fact that it’s also personal. It used to be, where I’d just open up either that room, and then I’d just have a section there. At first I opened up the whole place, but then I realized I wasn’t happy about that, so I kept trying to control it. But then I had to control my expression in the physical space, and it was more like I had a couple galleries attached, so I let that go and I let them in. But it’s hard to let people into your personal… I don’t mind with the artwork. I’m not hiding anything, I couldn’t care less, I’ll talk about anything, it’s who I am, but it’s just weird people coming in to… [laughter]

JL: Yeah. It’s a dilemma because this is such an amazing space and you want people to see it, but it’s also…

MB: I do. It’d be nice if… If I were successful… Before I get into that, the pirate thing. Within us all, we have this treasure. Written about it, they talk about the light within, Ali Baba’s treasure, it’s all about the hidden treasure. The pirates’ treasure, like under the sea, it’s there, you don’t know it’s there, or you know it’s there but you can’t get to it, so it’s like dredging up that that sparkles and the light which is you and not just the physical tool we walk around with. It’s what that is housing and all that we are, and so I think when you find a treasure and you raise it from under the sea, when it breaks the surface and all the gold, the chains, and the gems, the lights hitting them and the sun is glinting and the water’s rushing and there’s seaweed hanging, and you have air and light and water and earth, that’s the moment of [snaps his fingers] I got it moment, where you know you’re in the right place. It’s that moment of rapture; you’re in the zone. I think that represents it. […] There’s a connection that goes beyond just the physical. That’s what I’m trying to break apart, to figure out what exists underneath, what makes all that.

Astro. May 2011. (Image courtesy of Randy Korwin.)

People coming in, at one point, I think, if you feel comfortable enough, it’s like you get to be really who you are. Then I think you can walk out naked. And that’s kind of like the opening it up; I’m bearing myself here. And I’ve realized that people can come into my personal space, and they don’t get it or they get it, and if they get it, then I want them in it, and if they don’t, it’s just too much information for them. Years ago, I used to sell—well I still do—but years ago in California I’d sell these paintings to designers. And I had a lot of designers say, “I just want a gold thing on the wall. There’s too much stuff going on.” I wasn’t right for them. I put something in front of them; they didn’t get it. OK, I’m not going to make them a piece of wallpaper. But then you put it in front of somebody else and they go, “I get that.” So some of the galleries that had a criticism, “Your work’s too pretty.” Well I don’t, you know, most people, you get to a point of angst or tragedy and you’re forced to figure out why you’re at a dead end. […] I think we can do that if we pay attention at every stage. It doesn’t have to be a tragedy; it can be something that feels really good, and you follow that link, as opposed to the link where you can’t do anymore and you have to find a new direction. And so I think you can pull out from your core through joy as easily as you can through angst, but most artists and galleries you go to, a lot of times, something off-putting is given more resonance, in a way, and they write about it as how important it is. I think that something can have that talking about any aspect of life, and that’s why the littlest things to me mean as much as the biggest things. […] That’s why when I go in there and I start picking out finished pieces, it doesn’t matter the shape, the size, the context.

JL: What or who are your main influences, whether those are other artists or just other aspects of life?

MB: It’s never other artists. In fact, I didn’t even read an art magazine for years. I just figured you have to find your own way. But every day, influences are just walking around, and seeing things, and textures, and architecture, and panoramas, and driving. I see a lot of landscape because I drive everywhere, and I don’t really stop and get out and look at something; I see it moving through, so one landscape kind of leads to another and leads to another, and, again, how that fits with me is that it’s not putting too much importance on an individual element. I remember when I first started doing objects, in California, objects by assembling different parts, there was somebody out there doing furniture or something, and they kept saying, “Oh you have to see their work,” and I think they were chairs, but all the elements were finished elements, and they’re glued on, and they’re all next to each other, and it was folk art-y in a way, but it had no relationship to me, because what I’m trying to talk about is an organic process where one element bleeds to another and bleeds to another, and that’s where the chains came about, to talk about one thing leading to another thing leading to another thing, like waterfalls. But even before that, it was like one element I made, and especially because I’d buy better and better elements, you don’t want to cover them up. Now it’s just part of the entire basis.

Martin Bernstein. May 2011. (Image courtesy of Randy Korwin.)

JL: How long do you usually travel for? You said that you’re normally not here during the winter.

MB: It’s worked out like that. The first winter really taught me about cold. It was colder inside than it was out. So now I know to head out, but what really happened is I got into the jewelry business, and there are these two big gem shows. I have a show the 2nd of December in San Francisco, and then I have the show in Tucson the very last few days of January, so I could come back and then go back out, but for the most part I tend to stay out West, say until that show’s over, and then I’ll head East, and once I come back I don’t just run out again. I always think I am but I don’t, so I really try to take the entire country, go down to Florida and then around to New York, and then come back. And that takes about 4 months to do that. Now, again, the older he’s [Astro] gotten, the harder it is to go on walks in the winter and that whole thing, so I think about that too. So I’d come back, but if there’s no reason to come back, I’m going to keep scouting out for trying to find outlets. […] Like the inspirations, the things that happen along the trip, when I’m here I have no separation from it. When I’m on the road, I’m sort of meditating. So I do utilize that, but I need that time to… Even when people say, “Oh let’s go out,” I don’t go out. I sit here and I kind of, even if I don’t feel like actually working, producing something, or it’s just not coming, I put myself in a position to be ready; I turn the glue guns on, or the lights, or whatever I’m using, and if I’m not here, then I have no possibility of it turning on, but as long as, so that’s what I try to do.

Announcement for Martin Bernstein's show at Wilkes Bashford, San Francisco, 1 & 2 December 2011. (Image courtesy of Martin Bernstein.)

JL: Being on the road for so long, other than it being a meditative process, does all of that traveling have a direct effect on your creative process and on your work?

MB: It’s limiting on what you can do. When I didn’t have a home and I got a commission to do a painting, I’d have to rent a space or somebody’s garage or something, depending on where I was. I can do the jewelry or small objects on the road, but you take it into a hotel or motel or somebody’s house […] but at some point you have to pack everything up and get it out […] whereas here I just leave it. There’s a consciousness that bleeds from day to day to day. When you’re on the road, you clean it up and you come in with new eyes the next day. I’ll clean it up at night, even […] so I’ve gotten this “OK start and stop, start and stop,” where it’s very different than here.

But I think the road taught me: open your eyes right now, because what you are seeing or doing or thinking is gone, and now there’s a new “right now,” and that’s gone, and now there’s a new “right now,” and you keep moving through… Well that’s life. And it’s right now. It was an emphasis on that kind of thinking, which fits with my personality and my whole sort of Zen thing of life. […]

I think that principle is all you’ve got in the end, and so you really have to find the basic code of how you want to live, and all your work and all the things you say and do should fit that perfectly. The breaking apart of things, like you’re going through life and you’re going through all these pitfalls and it stabs you or cuts you or breaks you, especially as an artist and they are constantly telling you no, just that’s life, and to me that’s a part of growing up. We look outside of ourselves to define ourselves when we [are young]. It’s kind of a parabolic curve of life to me, and somewhere in the middle when we get to our 30s, we start to go, “Wait a minute. It’s not them. It’s me.” You start to realize that you sort of colored in the all the surrounding areas, and now it’s time to fill in this figure that’s sort of the shadow. You start to fill it in.

And I think that’s what I do. The fact that things they appear to be finished and polished I’d tear them apart or rip them open or accept that they go torn in travels, and do I throw it out, or do I take that tear and make that a statement within this piece. So to me, it’s part of accepting how life presents itself, and I have very little control over it. I can put myself in a direction and in a state of mind, but what comes to us is this thing out here. I don’t think it would come to us if there weren’t unlimited possibilities to learn from it, and to figure out why it’s in our perception.

JL: What are some other things we can look forward to from you?

MB: In the Spring I’ll be back. The jewelry is at Elements here in Chicago. They [the Zhou B Art Center] can open up that room [the outer room] but I won’t let them open up this room because it’s all my personal stuff. […] As a kid, I wanted to be an artist. I never conceived of it as a living, and people told me I lived a dream world, that I had to get a job. I went to school and I chose the school that I chose for industrial design. My brother was in industrial design so I said, “OK, I can make a living.” I hated it. Now in hindsight I’m glad because that taught me control. […] I would love for [the readers] to contact the website. From L.A. to New York, if I had to be there in four days, I’d be there in four days. It’s like, OK, if somebody wants to see me, and it seems important, I can be there in a couple days, unless I’ve got something going on. […] I’m actually trying to—all of the years I’m on the road, finding things and the collection of stuff that gets in to be painted or rethought in objects—I’m trying to dwindle by using it up, and I’m actually making headway.

So I just trust that I’m on the right path, that I’m doing the right thing at the right time, and if I don’t feel that, I’m willing to turn around on a dime. […] For somebody who doesn’t have a lot of things lined up, to be able to make a living at this, I am so, so stoked about it. It really is a very fortunate thing. It’s not where I’d like it to be… yet. I’m not there yet, but I accept where I’m at, and love it, appreciate it. […] I trust that every move has the absolute purposefulness of that move. Somehow, out of all of this, something will happen.

For more information about Martin Bernstein, visit

Jenny Lam blogs at Artists on the Lam. Her Twitter handle is @TheJennyLam.


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