In a Pig's Eye

Just what is well-known Denver artist Roland Bernier implying when he calls his current show at the Mackey Gallery Casting Pearls?

Is the audience--the gallery-going public--the swine? "The title is taken from one of the pieces in the show which literally pairs pearls and swine, so I wasn't trying to be disrespectful," Bernier says. "But," he adds with a laugh, "if the shoe fits..."

Far from suggesting any disdain for the public, though, the Casting Pearls show demonstrates that Bernier has been burning the midnight oil at his studio in order to give art lovers plenty of pearls to chew on. Over the past two years, the 65-year-old artist has created more than twenty monumental pieces that fill one of the city's most capacious galleries to overflowing. These never-before-seen pieces highlight Bernier's longtime obsession with using words and letters in his work. They build on techniques he developed in several earlier series but contain some distinctly new features--stylistically, for instance, they're influenced by sources as varied as pop art and minimalism. And aside from a couple of collages and a handful of paintings, most of the pieces are three-dimensional, either wall-mounted bas-reliefs or sculptures--a considerable departure for an artist who as recently as five years ago was known chiefly as a painter.

It was as a painter that Bernier first emerged on the mid-1980s Denver art scene with exhibits at the Cydney Payton Gallery and the Newsgallery, both of which are long gone. These acclaimed shows presented paintings that took abstract-expressionist motifs and used them in repetition. That repetition, combined with the anarchy of the expressionism, resulted in a body of highly successful abstractions. But for Bernier, these pieces were too decorative. And any postmodernist tendencies aside, Bernier comes from a generation of artists for whom decoration is a virtual crime.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1932, Bernier drew constantly as a child and wanted to be an artist for as long as he can remember. After a stint in the Air Force, using the GI Bill to pay for tuition, he entered the University of Texas in Austin. "There was no doubt about what I wanted to do when I went to college--I wanted to be an artist," he says.

Bernier completed his BFA in only three years, graduating in 1957. He then moved to Los Angeles to study at the University of Southern California, where he earned an MFA in 1960.

Returning to Texas the following year, Bernier began a career as an art teacher, a vocation he pursued for the next two decades. He first taught art in Houston, where in 1964 he also began to incorporate painted letters, numbers and words into his formerly abstract-expressionist paintings. These early works were exhibited regionally in the Southwest and generated both critical and collector interest.

Like so many artists in the mid-1960s, Bernier heeded the old saw about making it big in the big leagues and headed for New York City, which then, as now, was ground zero for the contemporary art world. He earned his living as an art teacher and moonlighted as a painter. His New York work was exhibited in several of the city's galleries, but today it's mostly lost. In 1972, discouraged and needing a change, Bernier left the Big Apple, rashly leaving his work still hanging on his studio's walls--"and stacked up in the closets." The only pieces that survive from this period are a handful that wound up in private collections.

The following year Bernier came to settle permanently in Denver. He got a job teaching art at the Park Avenue Community Center. "They were just starting up when I came here," he says. And throwing himself into teaching full-time, he turned his back on his own studio. "I was teaching art--but I wasn't making it," he recalls.

It wasn't until the mid-1980s, when Bernier faced retirement from teaching, that he again took up the paintbrush. This hiatus of more than a decade from art-making is how Bernier explains the burst of creative energy that has led to his prolific output ever since.

The Mackey show is a case in point, since the many pieces are clearly labor-intensive. Bernier has crafted his work through the painstaking process of cutting and assembling wood, which he then paints or wraps in photocopied prints. If it's hard to believe the artist created all of these meticulous pieces essentially single-handedly--"I got a little help cutting out the letters," confesses Bernier--then consider the fact that there are an additional twenty new pieces not included here. But seeing will be believing when Bernier unveils his additional works at a show slated for early next year at the Arvada Center.

Casting Pearls begins in the Mackey's large street-front space with the ten-foot-long mixed-media installation "Soap." For this installation, Bernier has mounted plywood letters directly onto the wall to spell out words such as "remember" and "desert." The words have the look of being typeset. But unlike text, they're arranged in nonsensical free associations, not strung together in sentences. This means there is no narrative content in "Soap." Bernier, though, encourages viewers to come up with individual interpretations.

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