Change and Continuity

Roland Bernier's at Fresh Art, while Havu presents Aaron Karp, Sushe Felix and others.

The story had been circulating for months: Fresh Art Gallery was closing for good, and the newish +Zeile/Judish would be moving into the sharp-looking spot at Ninth Avenue and Santa Fe Drive.

And it was lots more than a rumor. Not only had the tale been spread around by Jeanie King, the director of Fresh Art and the owner of the space, but also by the three fellows behind +Zeile/Judish: owner Ivar Zeile, partner Ron Judish and director Gilbert Barrera. They all told everyone that the move was imminent -- well, as soon as Zeile et al. found a tenant to sublet their location. Not only that, but the crew at +Zeile/Judish took out an ad in the current Art District on Santa Fe exhibition schedule, announcing that they'd soon relocate to 900 Santa Fe, which is, of course, Fresh's address.

The trouble is, the story wound up not being true -- or, at least, only half true. Yes, Fresh Art is closing after its last official exhibit, w.o.w. (works on wheels) w.o.p. (works on paper), a stunning solo devoted to the work of Roland Bernier. But +Zeile/Judish won't be moving in. Unable to find someone to take on their space, the guys announced last week that they're staying put.

"Objective," by Roland Bernier, acrylic on paper.
"Objective," by Roland Bernier, acrylic on paper.
"The Sun Also Rises," by Sushe Felix, acrylic and 
mixed media on canvas.
"The Sun Also Rises," by Sushe Felix, acrylic and mixed media on canvas.

Details

w.o.w. (words on wheels) w.o.p. (words on paper) Extended through June 4, Fresh Art, 900 Santa Fe Drive, 303-623-2200

Aaron Karp, Sushe Felix, Delos Van Earl, Lynn HeitlerThrough June 5, William Havu Gallery, 1040 Cherokee Street, 303-893-2360

King had her own announcement, revealing that at the end of June, Fresh Art will be taken over by a partnership of Spark and Core, which will divide the space. Count on both to seek new members in order to afford the higher rent.

Fresh Art wasn't supposed to be a co-op, but then again, the Bernier show wasn't supposed to happen, either. When Bernier heard that King was shutting down Fresh, he went to her and proposed this solo exhibit. King, still expecting +Zeile/Judish to come in on June 1, had a few weeks to fill, so she agreed to do the show.

King, however, was busy preparing to move to Rhode Island, which is why organizing the show fell to Lisa Gedgaudas, the director of Golem, a frame shop on the premises.

Bernier uses letters as a principal aesthetic device, giving his works a decidedly pop-art feel. The letters spell out words, but they are freely associated and do not tell a story. So despite the use of language, there's no narrative content. Bernier begins by looking through dictionaries for words with the same number of letters; he then assembles what he's found into separate sets so that when he creates a single piece, he can include words of the same length. The results, which Bernier has exhibited locally over the past fifteen years, are at once completely contemporary and very '60s retro. But don't be misled: Bernier is not your typical twenty- or thirty-something retro hipster. He's 72 years old and has been doing cutting-edge stuff, including using words as pictures, for the past four decades.

Bernier was born in Rhode Island and has lived in Denver since the 1970s. Before that, he spent time living and exhibiting in Houston, Los Angeles and New York. When he came to Denver, he took a job teaching art at the then-new Park Avenue Recreation Center, a gig he kept for more than twenty years. A little over ten years ago, Bernier decided he wanted to get back into the art game rather than teach; since then, he's shown at the city's top galleries and the Denver Art Museum, where he was afforded a solo show -- a rare honor for a Colorado artist.

The work at Fresh Art represents two sets of ideas that Bernier has been formulating for several years. He's had the concept for the words on wheels since before the DAM show in 2001, but he didn't start making the pieces until 2002. Though the sculptures in the series are all similar, there is a range of differences among them. For instance, some are small, while others are monumental. But all are broadly based on the form of a wagon with four wheels and a box or platform on which letters have been stacked.

A group of small ones is arranged on pedestals on the south side of the space. They have a funky, almost folk-art feeling enhanced by the painted finishes of brightly colored monochromes. Others displayed elsewhere, such as "Bang," have expressively painted distressed finishes.

The larger ones, which are the size of full-blown sculptures, are the best, and they don't look folksy at all. My favorite is "Cheers," a huge wagon form mounted on a low stand; the box's wheels have real rubber tires and chrome trim. The box itself has been filled with stacks of six-letter words, including the title, "Cheers." All Bernier titles are taken from the words he employs.

For works on paper, Bernier designed a simple alphabet and had it executed in rubber stamps. He also had rubber stamps made up of duotone images of silver-screen stars, including Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne. The alphabet predominates in these pieces, with the images of the movie stars part of the background.

One thing that's notable about the works on paper are their surfaces, which are very painterly despite the use of the rubber stamps. Nearly all of these pieces are marvelous -- aloof, enigmatic, elegant, smart -- so it's hard to find any that stand out. Having said that, I think "Objective," a diptych, is one of the finest. Like many of the others, it's not big, but it's still monumental.

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