While Critters Scurried Above, Houston Artist Charted Their Course With Frottage

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When the critters in the ceiling above his studio wouldn’t stop their scratch, scratch, scratching, Josh Bernstein embraced the intrusion through art.

Marking the site of the noise, Bernstein taped paper or vellum to the spot, creating both a starting point for a colored pencil drawing to be finished later, while also documenting the time. (The critters, most likely rodents, were decidedly nocturnal).

The irony of this exercise, as pointed out by the artist, is that he already was working on a series of kites suspended from the ceiling, and now he was being forced to work even higher.

In his “Moon Finger” exhibit at Devin Borden Gallery, Bernstein has fashioned three kites out of old clothing, dowels, copper, thread and monofilament. The viewer notices Kuato first, mostly because it’s hung at eye-level, allowing a nice look at the symmetry and inner-construction of the pink, magenta and gingham kite, accented by the buttons of a gray work shirt on one side and its companion buttonholes on the other.

Bernstein says that, when selecting the old clothes, he tries to imagine the person who wore the garment. Twin, the largest of the trio, soars with its massive wingspan of 96 inches and geometric symmetry. The artist merged opaque and translucent fabrics in his layered creation, allowing the primary colors to meld into secondaries as the viewer changes position underneath. Bernstein also incorporated texture through a gauzy chiffon center and lace eyelet edging.

As for those critter drawings, there’s a definite nod to the symmetry of the Art Deco movement, though with a darker color palette. The black and dark copper drawings have a futuristic, industrial feel, rendered in vellum with underlayers of simple geometric forms.

He’s added texture through frottage, often by way of the ceiling boards above as he rubbed in communion with the unwelcome tenants in the ceiling. The smallest drawing in the show, December 13, 2015, 10:25 pm features the silhouette of a beast against a fiery sky, its head poking down towards the bifurcated underworld below.

There’s a precise and orderly appearance to March 2, 2016, 6:30 pm, looking almost like an organizational chart rotated 90 degrees, with the charred and chalky flames of the lower-tiered workers propelling the digital device forward.

April 13, 2016, 6:12 pm offers up what could be a silhouetted Olympic torch, backed by an optimistic blue light, though the artist leaves enough abstraction to allow for multiple interpretations.

There’s a lot going on in April 23, 2016, 2:15 pm, a collaged print with pink chevrons, brick red rubbings and tints of green. Underneath the cloudy vellum the viewer can barely discern a drawing of a dying pope.

In several of these works, Bernstein has invoked what he refers to as Star Trek colors, using the same otherworldly atmosphere (pinks, greens, purples) that were found when Captain Kirk and his crew visited far off planets in the television series from the ‘60s.

It’s an interesting show, and a good way to touch base with this rising artist who incubated at Lawndale Art Center as a studio artist in 2014-2015, during the same round as trending artists JooYoung Choi and Lina Dib. Bernstein’s fascination with the heavens, which we first saw in last year’s “Elevators and Star Charts” series, still seems on course with this newest trajectory. The new works also seem much more minimalist than the travel-themed works produced in 2011 for “The Happiest People On Earth.” A trio of his works from that period, the mixed media photo collage on Plexiglass titled After Four Days, is part of the collection at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

“Moon Finger” continues through October 4 at Devin Borden Gallery, 3917 Main, open Tuesdays to Saturdays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (through Labor Day), and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. afterwards, 713-256-0225, devinborden.com. Free.

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