Wordsmith

Roland Bernier spells success in a triumphant solo at the DAM's Close Range.

There's no question about it: Roland Bernier is one of Denver's greatest contemporary artists. His vision is remarkable in its variation and monumentality. His output is astounding. His relentless quest for innovation is breathtaking. And his solo, Between the Lines: Word Works by Roland Bernier, on display in the Denver Art Museum's Vance Kirkland Close Range Gallery, illustrates all this and more.

The exhibit, which has been in the planning stages for years, was organized by Nancy Tieken, associate curator of the DAM's modern and contemporary department. She first became aware of Bernier a few years after seeing his work in local exhibits and visiting his studio, where she was astounded by the enormous volume of high-quality stuff. (I've been there myself and can tell you that not only does he have enough recent work to fill this show, he's got enough to fill the entire museum.) But Bernier didn't include any of the pieces that Tieken saw that day in Between the Lines. Instead, he created all but one specifically for this show. Two of the largest works, a mural and an installation, were created to fit the exact dimensions of the eccentrically shaped Close Range.

The gallery has an anteroom entrance as a transition space off the elevator lobby on the main floor. In recent exhibits, this area has been used both for signage and as ad hoc exhibition space. Bernier selected a gorgeous dark-leaf-green color for the walls, which is also used on one wall of the Close Range. The words that make up the sign announcing the show have been constructed out of letters cut from unfinished plywood, which is the same material Bernier uses throughout in both paintings and sculptures.

"Word Works #1," by Roland Bernier, plywood installation (photographed in the artist's studio).
"Word Works #1," by Roland Bernier, plywood installation (photographed in the artist's studio).
"Green Rapper," acrylic on wood painting.
"Green Rapper," acrylic on wood painting.

Details

Through August 12, 720-865-5000
Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway

"Talking in Circles," done in 2001, is displayed alongside the sign. It is also made of words constructed from unfinished plywood letters; the letters are smaller than those used for the sign, though otherwise they're the same. Bernier has arranged the words in a circle, which marks a new approach; previously, he arranged words in horizontal rows, in the manner of the printed page.

The artist came up with the circular piece at the last minute; in fact, it was during the closing days of the installation phase. Tieken points out how incredible this is. "Most artists, after they've completed the work for a major show, want to take a break, maybe go on a trip," she explains. "But Roland came up with two more innovations right at the very end. The circular piece was one of them, and the other was the idea of using casters on the bottom of his sculpture stands so that the pieces can be moved around."

Though "Talking in Circles" is unique in its circular format, it has a lot in common with the fifteen other pieces in the show and in this way lays out Bernier's aesthetic philosophy.

First, despite the fact that Bernier is a voracious reader and uses words as his chief decorative device, his intention is not for the words to have any particular narrative meaning aside from those brought to the work by the viewers themselves. Thus the words that have been linked together in one of Bernier's pieces have been randomly chosen and have not been selected in order to tell a story or to evoke a particular thought or feeling.

By using random words, the artist makes a conceptual reference to the automatism of abstract expressionism. With his use of words made of letters done in pointedly mundane and simple typefaces, he also tips his ubiquitous baseball cap to pop art and its appropriationist progeny. The repetition of the hard-edged shapes of the letters and the unified shapes of the words, which in some pieces are all the same length, refer to geometric abstraction and, in the sculpture and the installation, to minimalism. It's as though Bernier is attempting to reconcile all the dominant issues in American art of the last half-century. This is a heroic task, but he's obviously up to it.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1932, Bernier joined the United States Air Force after high school. He ended his tour of duty in 1954 at Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas, also home to the University of Texas. Using the GI Bill, he entered UT's painting department and completed his BFA in only three years. He went on to earn his MFA from the University of Southern California in 1960.

After graduation, Bernier moved to Houston, where he taught art at a public high school, the University of Houston and the Houston Museum of the Fine Arts. During this time, he was widely exhibiting his paintings in the hippest galleries in Houston and other trendy venues throughout the country. Like most young artists then, he was an abstract expressionist.

It was in 1964 that he first began to add words to his paintings. In his work from that period, which is very different from the work he does now, the letters -- and some numbers, too -- are hand-painted and used to create a foundation for all-over abstractions, typically monochromes. As in his current pieces, the words were selected at random.

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