san francisco art magazine

Bernadette Cotter

Still Life

David Cunningham Projects
San Francisco, California

April 3rd - May 10th, 2008

Reviewed by Dale Tegman
Still Life - Bernadette Cotter

© BERNADETTE COTTER - "Still Life", 2008

     Bernadette Cotter lived in San Francisco for roughly seven years. Those familiar with the Irish expatriate scene or Performance Art concerns will recognize her instantly. Entering her second decade of mature work she continues to defy common expectation of her modest appearance. Short in stature with a thin-lipped smile, her hair grays unspectacularly through youthful red and brown strands. Her button mushroom white skin, profuse with freckles, eschews makeup, botox and other manipulations. This simplicity resonates in her analysis of global interconnectedness and the innate androgyny of human representation. That's still part of her life performance.

     "Still Life" developed from events impacting the artist in the fall of 2004. Suddenly back in her native land for a teaching gig, Cotter was struck by the immediacy of the international news story welcoming her home. An entire school of children, captured by Chechen rebels, was massacred.

     The unlikely face of the crisis was that year's surprise Wimbledon victor Maria Sharapova. She originally hailed from Chernobyl and left Russia at roughly the mean age of the young victims. While playing in the U.S. Open, Sharapova wore a black ribbon to honor the memory of the the innocent who lost their lives at the Beslan School Massacre. Cotter internalized this confluence of narratives and journeyed to complete her four-part installation over the course of two and a half years.

Still Life - Bernadette Cotter

© BERNADETTE COTTER - "Still Life", 2008

     Upon walking into David Cunningham Project's presentation of "Still Life", one confronts a Pit-and-the-Pendulum array of black shuttlecocks made from long sewing needles wrapped in black wool thread and suspended from the ceiling. Cotter's artist statement identifies the objects as "pods ... longing to burst open and give birth."

     While fabric and craft have long been associated with the feminine, the color, danger, discomfort, and overt masculinity of this vignette are unmistakable. The viewer wonders if the withdrawn realization of womanhood from girls among the ranks of the young dead masculinizes the victims? Certainly, it transforms the narrative of their potential irrevocably, "suspending" them.

     29 red ink on paper canvases line the gallery, each suggesting both a yarn ball and an oxygenated, blood-filled body. The lines recall the delight of Ellen Gallagher's "Watery Ecstatic" series (2003), bending over and over with playful entanglement.

     Biological structures tease artists this way: repetition proves to be as much an illusion as individuation. Cotter herself identifies the connecting element, a red line, as fleshly in origin, "a child's head? Or was it a heart or uterus?"

     If the geopolitical drama dims in favor of intricate work, Cotter twists it again for impact with a quilt of hanging black organza stitched with hands and words. When we think of quilts for children, we tend to think in pink or blue. Certainly, any memorial rendered by surviving parents would reject the starkness of Cotter's project.

Still Life - Bernadette Cotter

© BERNADETTE COTTER - "Still Life", 2008

     Also, for San Franciscans, memorial quilts represent both a survivors' cliché and the opportunistic commodification of death. Many of us know a contributor who regrets his or her AIDS Quilt panel becoming an artifact stored in a distant warehouse. The Quilt, meant to be a local and intensely personal memorial, instead became multinational and brutally anonymous.

     Their choices, as one might imagine, are far more puerile than Cotter would permit herself. ("Forever" and "why" are two words depicted on the blister card for the event.) They represent the kind of permission one indulges a child with, or one's inner child with, in an effort to smoke out abnormal psychology.

     Her choice of the moire organza "veils" recalls Irish funeral rites and establishes continuity with her past performances covered head to toe in the material.

     On opening night, Cotter treated the assembled to several hours of living sculpture as she posed in the gallery's anteroom. Stark still, covered with a desexualizing garment of black organza, her outstretched hands held a ball of red yarn dangerously cross-stuck with sharps.

-- Dale Tegman

Dale Tegman is an online journalist living in San Francisco. Follow his popular blog at

For more information about Bernadette Cotter and David Cunningham Projects visit