Martin Bernstein, installation artist: His life in a Sesame cave

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Artist Martin Bernstein in his Sesame cave studio 

I met artist Martin Bernstein one Friday evening at Zhou Brothers Art Center in Chicago when he and many other artists opened the doors of their atelier to visitors. The building was crowded that evening. People of all generations mingled through the several floors of the building to see exhibitions, art studios, and new artworks.

On the third floor, I entered a light gallery room full of unusual, bluish installations. While I was enjoying watching and trying to decode them, I noticed that a few people came from another, very dark room. I instinctively went to that direction and there, right in front of me, the Sesame cave opened its door and I entered one the strangest places I’ve ever seen — Martin Bernstein’s art studio.

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On the third floor, I entered a light gallery room full of unusual, bluish installations. While I was enjoying watching and trying to decode them, I noticed that a few people came from another, very dark room. I instinctively went to that direction and there, right in front of me, the Sesame cave opened its door and I entered one the strangest places I’ve ever seen — Martin Bernstein’s art studio. 

From the bottom to the top, from one wall to another, from one room to another, this unusual place was filled with different stuff and materials. Hundreds and hundreds of colored beads, wires, ribbons, flowers, papers and different composite materials were hanging from the ceiling and wrapping almost every object in his studio. In the middle of this dark, shiny, weird jungle, artist Martin Bernstein was standing and talking to the visitors. A music of nature, birds, and water was coming from the background. Everything was bizarre.

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Some visitors were walking through the place looking around curiously. Others were talking to the Bernstein or waiting in line to ask him about the space and his sculptures, paintings, and jewelry. They had a lot of questions, and he answered very patiently and minutely. I could see how much they were surprised with this overcrowded space, but even more when he told them that he lives here, that this art cave is his home.

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During the interview we arranged a few days later, he told me that over the years he was collecting things and slowly turning his home into gallery space. Moreover, he turned his home into a permanent art installation. And unlike other artists, whose installations have space and time frame, Martin Bernstein lives in this studio. His installation doesn’t have a beginning or an end. It is a constant display, constant construction that visitors can see when Martin Bernstein opens the door for them. And that makes him different from any other installation artist.

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We sat at his living room, in the middle of the atelier, and started chatting. I was looking around and noticed that he colored almost every piece of his furniture — pillows, heavy dark curtains, chairs, mirrors, lamps, hats. “At the beginning, even before I moved to Chicago, I painted all my luggage because it was a crappy luggage. I would buy something in second-hand stores, and when I asked what is wrong with stuff, they would tell me — they are old. So I could make them beautiful and I did.”

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He even colored curtains on the windows. He got them from some people who bought their house and colored them. “They are good because they keep heat out in the summer and cold out in the winter,” he said. “But there are some pieces, like my mother’s table, that I didn’t paint because of emotional value and memories.”

He told me that he came to Chicago from Miami, where he went (from L.A.) to be with his father during his last days. After his father died, he moved to Chicago. His only criterion was to find a good studio, and he found it in the Windy City at the building that Chinese artists — the Zhou Brothers — just bought. “If I didn’t have a dog, probably I wouldn’t be here because the building was dusty and full of trash. The neighborhood was empty. It wasn’t like today.”

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He planned to have a space for displaying his paintings and do a little installation, but then: “I would look, for example, at cement wall and see a spot for me to work on and I would work. It is a little crazy, because I could be making paintings or jewelry, something people can relate to or can buy instead of tying things to my ceilings, walls and making bizarre things. But, I don’t know when I am doing it. I’ve never think about practical side of creation, I just did.”

He said that there was a cute coconut tree house in Miami. “That was environment I would live in, so in a way I created here that environment with tree, birds.”

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I asked him is he annoyed when unfamiliar people come into his private place, and he said that he is bothered just a little bit. “At first, they don’t see this as a private place because there is so much around. But, then, they see furniture and realize this is my place. Fortunately, nothing bad happened. I am sure some bad people came here, but I was fortunate so far. I think I have a good karma and when you put there it is like an amulet against bad people. Also, I try to declare private space.”

Instead of complaining about of visitors he is happy that people can come to see his work (every third Friday of the month), because back in the days, at the beginning of his career, things were different.

15. Martin Bernstein studio

”Early on, when I was young I was trying to show my work. I was knocking on the doors but didn’t get anywhere. Basically, as an artist, that is who you are. And you being rejected, nobody knows who you are. Then I started painting clothes and wear painted clothes. Actually, I made a living selling painted clothes. And that wasn’t just throwing a few dots of paint. These were real paintings and it was good for a while. I was trying to declare myself as an artist and I looked like a sculpture moving through the space. People would come to me and ask me about that. Now when I look back it looked a little weird, but I had to do that.”

That’s why the idea about third Friday when all artists in the building open their studios is excellent. “Now people come to see me and my work. I touch them with it and that is a wonderful thing. I am an unknown artist, but I am not as an unknown as I used to be: nonexisting. That gives me satisfaction that I don’t have to prove myself every time when I go out and be my own billboard and sell board. That fits with idea while I keep doing what I am doing. Because it is creative.”

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Also, at the beginning, he felt uncomfortable standing in the middle of studio and talking to people, but he got used to it, and now he is pretty comfortable. He talked to them about his installation, about his paintings and his beautiful jewelry, which he sells individually and at the biggest art shows in America. Every piece is unique, sophisticated and handmade. “It takes me one week to make one piece of necklace!” he said.

Fortunately, it took less time to color his fancy shoes he wore during the interview.  “Yesterday I like them, but not today!” he joked. Shoes, lamps, canvases, jewelry, chandeliers, hats — for artist Martin Bernstein, everything is art. Everything can be artistically refined and stylized in one and only Martin Bernstein’s style and in his Sesame cave.

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~ Milica Puric ~ 

© URBAN CULTURE TRIBE

2 thoughts on “Martin Bernstein, installation artist: His life in a Sesame cave

  1. Anonymous

    This is a great article and the story. I think I have to visit this super interesting place and experience the atmosphere…

    Reply
  2. Sophia W.

    I have been there during the summer and I like it a lot. That is really like entering Sesame cave… Great artist, great installation!

    Reply

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