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.

The title of the piece refers to the fact that Bernier has taken color photocopies of laundry-detergent boxes and wrapped them around the plywood letters. The result is a riot of strongly tinted hues that really stand out against the bright white of the gallery's walls. Though the detergent boxes feature a wide range of colors, the predominant tones are the primary colors of red, yellow and blue.

Primary colors are also at the heart of "Cross Words," a wall-mounted installation that dominates the adjacent central gallery. Three plywood crosses have been covered with words formed from plywood letters. Each cross has been painted in a monochrome--one red, one yellow, one blue. It's a witty observation by Bernier: the primary colors as the holy trinity of art.

The central space also includes two of the several bona fide sculptures Bernier has included in the show. It's not the first time Bernier has shown sculpture, but these are the first he has made almost completely out of the plywood letters, earlier efforts having incorporated found objects or ready-mades. The painted wood sculpture "Word Structure" consists of a square plywood base on which two stacks of plywood letters have been mounted. The base and the sculpture have been painted uniformly in a shiny, blazing red. In "Where the Hell Did I Put My Glasses Oh Here They Are," the title reveals the words spelled out by the horizontally stacked letters that form the piece. "Where the Hell," which incorporates a pair of glasses along with the letters, is painted in a dead white acrylic paint.

Bernier takes a different approach in another sculpture crowded into the small back space. "Wood Knot," made of wood and clear acrylic, is a minimalist sculpture in which the base is a key component. On the substantial base, made of unfinished plywood, Bernier has neatly stacked hundreds of plywood letters. The letters have also been left unfinished and have been encased in a rectangular cover of clear plastic.

The gallery's two side spaces feature more typical Bernier wall pieces, including the visually rich "Tattoo," which sports those ubiquitous plywood letters covered with--you guessed it--color photocopies of tattoos. Across the room from "Tattoo" is "If You Say It Often Enough," a plywood-and-paint bas-relief that's covered with the word "Art" repeated over and over. It's not hard to understand the implication here.

Bernier's sardonic view of the art world in "If You Say It Often Enough" brings us to the exhibit's namesake, "Casting Pearls," which is displayed nearby. A plywood construction with cut-out letters covered in black-and-white photocopies, "Casting Pearls" is divided into two parts in the manner of a diptych. On the left side are photos of pearl necklaces, on the right, ominous-looking young men wearing novelty pig snouts.

But there's more. Gallery director Mary Mackey has not only given Bernier the entire set of front spaces, which usually sport the work of two or three artists, but she has also devoted the former M-art space, which is separated from the rest of the gallery and must be reached by walking through Mackey's home and office. The old M-art space is outfitted with Bernier's paintings of words from last year, pieces that anticipated the three-dimensional work on display up front.

Among this source material is one of the most beautiful pieces in the show, the striking "Duck Soup," a mixed-media diptych. One panel is a luxurious deep black, the other a dazzling white. Each panel is completely covered with vinyl letters forming words, but they're barely visible under the paint. The painting is stunning in its simplicity.

Any qualms about intended slights notwithstanding, Casting Pearls is one of the best local solo shows in memory. It lays out Bernier's artistic development over two years--a period that was seemingly filled with hectic activity and wild stylistic changes and advancements.

The Bernier show continues a tradition of excellence at the Mackey Gallery, but promotional materials for the exhibit included an ominous notice that the next show at Mackey, a group exhibit being organized by Phil Bender, will be the gallery's last ever. Since that time, however, director Mackey has changed her mind and come up with a plan to keep the place open while reducing her expenses. She plans to turn over the main spaces to individuals interested in subletting the gallery for exhibitions.

"An artist has already put down a deposit for August," Mackey says. This means the new Mackey Gallery will be a kind of free-floating co-op in which Mackey will have no control over the content of exhibits. And that would be a shame, because she's proven herself capable of staging superb art shows.

But take heart--maybe it won't happen. Many will recall that last year at this same time, the gallery was set to close down completely before a fundraiser saved the day, allowing Mackey not only to remain open but to expand. Here's hoping Mackey is able to pull the fat out of the fire again. The loss of the gallery as an exhibition venue, even if it remains open as a sublet, would be a real blow to the Denver art scene.

Casting Pearls, through November 29 at the Mackey Gallery, 2900 West 25th Street, 455-1157.

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