Born in Buenos Aires, Bernardi immigrated to the U.S. in 1979 to avoid becoming another “disappeared” intellectual, and after earning MA and MFA degrees at U.C. Berkeley she joined her sister as a member of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Unit. During the early and mid-‘90s, the team exhumed the remains of noncombatant civilians who were murdered during the civil wars that tore apart El Salvador and Guatemala. One of their grisly discoveries in El Salvador was a mass grave containing the bodies of 136 children. It inspired Bernardi’s epic installation Murmullos/Whispers, now on view at 40 Acres.
Contrary to expectations, Bernardi does not depict the physical pain of death in the point-blank manner of, say, Leon Golub or Nancy Spero—two contemporary chroniclers of war and political oppression. Instead, she emphasizes the persistence of hope among the survivors. Her multilayered monoprints reveal bright, luminous landscapes whose super-saturated colors pull viewers into emotional and psychological states that are more about transcendence than violence. That impression is reinforced by the vitality of the spectral, subterranean figures and objects that populate her pictures at varying depths. Bernardi scratches these elements onto surfaces dominated by searing reds and deep cobalt blues, a mixture that calls up an imaginary collaboration between Mark Rothko and Paul Klee—two artists she cites as influences.
Bernardi’s approach is intuitive and labor-intensive: she applies 50 to 70 layers of pure pigment to wet paper to achieve prints that glow like backlit transparencies. She calls them “frescoes on paper.” “The coloration,” she points out, “oftentimes is a process of subtraction, a scraping away of the layers so that what shows through translucently is in fact the actual mixing of color as the eye perceives it. Sometimes the pigments are hostile and repel each other,” she notes, which occasionally makes it “difficult to work with an idea or subject matter.”
As a result, each print “goes through an incredible transition” in which Bernardi functions more like an attentive observer than an all-powerful auteur. “I am only one part of the process,” she maintains. “The papers have a voice and the pigments have a strong voice, and we work as a team,” she says, likening her role to “a diplomatic act. I cannot take ownership. If the work is good, I am happy, and if it is bad, I am sorry. It’s like a baby; it’s born that way.”
Invariably, Bernardi’s prints do reflect her sentiments about specific events—namely, the last three years she spent teaching art in El Salvador just a few kilometers from where her forensics team exhumed the children’s bodies. Where Bernardi previously thought of art as an interior experience—“a safe place to think about what I cannot think rationally”—she now sees her work in much broader terms, representing “the sense of deep dignity that people can sustain even in times of deep crisis.”
“Claudia Bernardi: Silence Was Hostile and Almost Perfect” closed at 40 Acres Art Galleryin Sacramento Dec. 30, 2007. Claudia Bernardi is represented by Segura Publishing Company, Mesa, Ariz.; (480) 894-0551 or www.segura.com