Bergstein is the center of a constellation of four Danforth exhibits

Staff reports

Bearded and professorial, painter Gerry Bergstein covers his canvases with the detritus of a feverish imagination, pop cultural magma and "alternative universes" he creates from their collisions.

In a 25-year career retrospective at the Danforth Museum of Art, he is showing 30 works divided between oil paintings that juxtapose the surreal and utterly real and mixed media pieces that smoosh the two together.

Challenging, often head-shaking funny and visually electrifying, "Gerry Bergstein: Effort at Speech" presents an important regional artist at the center of a constellation of four exhibits examining the legacy of Boston Expressionist painters.

Broadly titled "Expressionism in Boston," these exhibits showcase works by the late Henry Schwartz and Sudbury resident David Aronson, who both proceeded and influenced Bergstein, and near contemporary Morgan Bulkeley who has collaborated with him.

The recently-opened "David Aronson: The Paradox" and "Henry Schwartz: The Eternal Footman" run through Feb. 28. Bergstein's show and "Morgan Bulkeley: Who's the Daddy," run through early- and mid-March.

Together these shows represent the most ambitious conjunction of related exhibits since Katherine French took over as the Danforth's executive director several years ago.

Combining more than 100 works spanning six decades, these exhibits explore how American artists were drawn to German Expressionism because of its ability to express powerful emotions they came to associate with their own experiences as secular Jews living in major East Coast cities.

It should be no surprise French described Bergstein as "a consummate and highly-skilled painter ... who uses extreme seriousness and levity at the same time."

"Look again. Gerry's paintings are always personal because he's working through his emotions in them. The whole universe is opening up in them," she said.

In "Do You Come Here Often," Bergstein imagines the Tower of Babel thrusting skyward like a mountainous stalagmite. A potpourri of fruits, fauna and pop icons are stuck like sticky notes in the heart-shaped mixed media "Deconstructed Heart." Howling oval-mouthed like Macaulay Culkin imitating Edvard Munch's screamer, the artist portrays himself dangling from a web of wires and paintbrushes in "Screams Throughout Art History."

As organized by French, the exhibit follows Bergstein as he progressed in theme and style from a surreal visualizer of everyday absurdities to a deeper, often darker but still funny explorer of the self and world.

Don't be discouraged by Bergstein's cosmic ambitions. His eye-popping work leaves an enjoyable afterglow like flashbulbs illuminating Aurora Borealis or a wormhole in space.

Over several decades, Bergstein seems to have absorbed earlier Expressionist influences into his own personal approach by accumulating vaguely related representational images across his canvases.

In many works, his signature technique consists of depicting pastiches of improbable juxtapositions such as portraits of Leonard Da Vinci and Bart Simpson or images borrowed from Vincent van Gogh or cartoonist Bob Crumb.

As an artist, Bergstein seems to look through both ends of the telescope painting scenes that juxtapose the familiar and trivial with the cosmic and ineffable.

Describing his work, Bergstein wrote: "I love the auras that images project onto each other." "This work samples art history and hypothesizes 'chance meetings' of images which have everything and nothing in common. It generates blind dates between images and ideologies from art of the last several hundred years," he wrote.

In a Wednesday afternoon appearance at the museum, Bergstein recalled his early infatuation with German Expressionism and the influence of studying under a rigorous teacher like Schwartz.

He recalled Schwartz as a large hulking man passionate about classical music who constantly played it in his classes or listened to it through an ear plug attached to a portable radio.

From 1990 until his death in 2007, Schwartz fell into a debilitating depression that largely ended his creativity.

Arthur Dion, co-director of the NAGA Gallery in Boston which represents Bergstein, also spoke at the Wednesday afternoon lecture.

Dion said Schwartz remained bewildered through his life by how German culture which produced geniuses like Goethe, Nietzsche and Beethoven also created the Holocaust.

He later observed that Bergstein, like his mentor, still expresses in his art jarring imagistic juxtapositions representing the commonplace and cosmic, the beautiful or monstrous within a single canvas.

Though numerically the smallest of the four shows, "Henry Schwartz: The Eternal Footman" provides a powerful yet too brief glimpse into the talent and torment of an original artist.

French explained the title comes from a passage Schwartz admired in T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,"

The passage reads: "I am no prophet and here's no great matter. / I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker. / I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker, / And, in short, I was afraid."

In just nine oil paintings, Schwarz revealed his dual obsessions with the power of classical music and the haunting paradoxes of life in which the human impulse toward beauty and cruelty exist side by side.

Five paintings depict symphony orchestras or people enraptured by music.

But Schwartz's most powerful paintings, "Pierrot Lunaire" and "Orient Heights: The Spirit of Anne Frank Singing," evoke the eternal struggle between good and evil at the core of humanity.

While Bergstein may not reconcile those painful polarities, he refreshes the Expressionist legacy in art that seeks light amid the darkness through humor, irony and sheer persistence.

MetroWest Daily News

THE ESSENTIALS:

The Danforth Museum of Art, 123 Union Ave., Framingham, is open noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday.

Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for students and senior citizens, free for children under 17 and Danforth members.

For more information, call 508-620-0050 or visit www.danforthmuseum.org.