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In one of her two hundred Polaroids, Emma Bee Bernstein holds a handwritten sign that reads “HI SADVILLE,” but the slight smirk on her face and the trite irony of her Spam logo t-shirt dismisses any true sense of melancholy. In fact, the title of her exhibition at Microscope Gallery, Exquisite Fucking Boredom, mischievously misleads, as across the show despondency is conspicuously absent. Nevertheless, such a glib statement isn’t entirely out of place for this acutely self-aware artist.
Armed with a Polaroid OneStep and a Spectra 2, and flaunting a boisterous spirit, Bernstein documented herself and her friends, family, and lovers during her undergraduate years at the University of Chicago (2003–7), in a range of settings, mostly domestic interiors like kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms. Her subjects—barely out of their teens—are playful, flirtatious, and goofy, sometimes serious but never sullen. One young woman poses sideways for the camera, topless with hand on hip, her red lipstick matching the heart shapes sewn onto her apron as she stands in front of a stove. In another picture, Bernstein models coquettishly in a cherry-red dress with matching lipstick, testing feminine roles in pursuit of some kind of truth. Several photographs of the artist’s boyfriend, submerged in milky bathwater or standing stark naked, feel tender and searching. It’s rare to find a photograph without someone in it—even a finger accidentally covering the lens indicates a human presence. And despite the casualness inherent to instant cameras, Bernstein’s compositions are strong, with each frame creatively and purposefully filled.
Several Polaroids seem to serve as sketches for Bernstein’s more formal works, coolly depicting attractive young women in staged scenarios of eye-popping color; they were shown last year at Janet Kurnatowski Gallery in Brooklyn. These images are soaked with influences from contemporary art and fashion—Cindy Sherman and Katy Grannan, Juergen Teller and Guy Bourdin—but at a time when every hipster with a camera fancies himself as the next Nan Goldin, Bernstein’s Polaroids are something all their own. One reason is because they’re so normal. Bernstein’s safe, earnest work impressively avoids vapid self-expression as seen on faux-glamorous websites like the Cobrasnake and Last Night’s Party, or in sketchy American Apparel advertisements. While someone like Dash Snow, a contemporaneous artist who also used an instant camera, habitually portrays drug use and group sex among his circle of pranksters, vandals, and partiers, Bernstein shows us a harmless pillow fight. She may drink and smoke, as any college girl would, but compared to folks in Snow’s world, her hangover is probably much milder.
Polaroids possess built-in nostalgia, and Bernstein’s images radiate a warm sense of genuine belonging, and since many are self-portraits, you know someone else was sharing the moment. Yet being surrounded by people she loved and who loved her couldn’t prevent the artist from committing suicide in 2008, at age 23. Her parents discovered the Polaroids, which had never been shown publicly, among other work in her apartment following her death. The exhibition’s curator, Phong Bui, who also helped organize the Kurnatowski show, combed through the collection and thoughtfully selected and framed a dozen sets of ten or twenty images in long horizontal and vertical rows, creating an installation that suggests slide shows or filmstrips. Narrative sequences are hard to parse for those outside Bernstein’s social milieu, but connections between adjacent images need not always tell a story. Presenting the Polaroids in this way, as an arbitrary, subjective flow of memories, offers an uplifting tribute to the artist’s brief but full life.