Text Messaging

Art and language mix it up at the Mizel Center and + Gallery.

We've all heard the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words, but what about pictures of words? Are they worth a thousand words -- and then some? Or are they worth less than a depiction of something else?

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do know one thing: There's quite a bit of contemporary art that incorporates words on display right now.

Around here, it's impossible to talk about words and pictures without turning to Roland Bernier, a Denver artist who's been doing this kind of thing for more than forty years. Bernier is the best known of a trio of artists featured in NOT YOUR TYPE, an unusual outing currently at the Singer Gallery of the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture. As is almost always the case at the Singer, director Simon Zalkind organized the exhibit, and as usual, it's well worth seeing.

"Shoed," by Roland Bernier, mixed-media wall 
"Shoed," by Roland Bernier, mixed-media wall sculpture.
"Fear Factor," by Evan Colbert, mixed media on panel.
"Fear Factor," by Evan Colbert, mixed media on panel.


Through December 30, Mizel Center for Arts and Culture, 350 South Dahlia Street, 303-399-2660

Better Times, Nocturnal Suburbia and Cremasteric Reflex Corset
Through January 7, + Gallery, 2350 Lawrence Street, 303-296-0927

Zalkind had Bernier in mind when he came up with the idea for NOT YOUR TYPE. "Roland was a centerpiece for me," he says. Zalkind needed a show that would tie in with the Mizel's annual Leah Cohen Festival of Books & Authors, which he organized as well, and Bernier's word works made him a perfect fit. Zalkind also decided to include Martin Mendelsberg and Rick Griffith, two graphic designers who cross over into the fine arts, because, like Bernier, they use words in their pieces. "My hope for the show was that it would look like three distinct mini-exhibits," he explains. And it does.

The first of the three minis, installed to the right of the entrance, belongs to Bernier -- as it should. The pieces indicate a considerable change in Bernier's work; they're unlike anything I've seen by him before. Whereas Bernier's signature pieces are all-over abstracts completely made up of words, in these latest efforts he uses only a single word, which is then expressed literally with the help of found and ready-made objects.

The works here all take essentially the same form: Wooden letters spelling out the word have been mounted on a vertically oriented box, with the whole thing painted over in a monochrome; the ready-mades are attached. Sometimes, as with the hot-pink "Shoed," they're painted to match the boxes. Each construction is marked on the front with a trophy-style brass-plate label that identifies it. These Bernier constructions are great -- very neo-pop, and pretty funky, too.

The second exhibit-within-an-exhibit, hung on the angled walls that run down the center of the Singer, is given over to Mendelsberg, who teaches graphic design and interactive media at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. Like Bernier, Mendelsberg uses text, but his work is coming from a very different place in just about every way possible. There are no plays on words here. The somberly toned and densely composed digital prints from Mendelsberg's "Holocaust Series" explore the Holocaust using sacred Hebrew texts (some in a Hebrew font that Mendelsberg designed) and historic and contemporary photographs. In several, Hebrew letters surround swastikas, which is unbelievably eye-catching, not to mention heavy with narrative.

The stylistic unity of these gorgeous prints, as well as the way they completely occupy the walls on which they've been hung, creates the mental equivalent of a reverential space in which to view them -- something that doesn't actually exist in the cramped quarters of the gallery. This psychological state allows viewers to take in the Mendelsbergs apart from the raucous mood touched off by the Berniers on one side and the similarly boisterous atmosphere of the Griffiths on the other.

"I always responded to his designs," says Zalkind of Griffith, "because he incorporated recognizable references to art history -- to dada, to fluxus, to pop." This characteristic is amply demonstrated in the works included here. Zalkind met Griffith a few years ago, when the designer, whose studio is called Matter, was working on the debut issue of Eye Level, a Denver arts journal that may or may not be defunct right now, depending on whom you talk to about it.

On the wall to the left is an installation of Griffith posters done over the past ten years promoting local events at such cultural venues as the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and the Bug Theater; on the adjacent wall are his fine-art pieces. With both, it's easy to see what Zalkind's talking about, because references to various phases of modernism seem to be everywhere. There's the very constructivist "Press Type Prints Series," the very Bauhaus-style "AIGA Program" poster and the very pop-y "Augmented Signs." In this last effort, a collaboration with Jason Otero and Paco, common signs were reprinted in altered forms. "No Hunting" became "No Hurting," for example, and "Beware of Dog" was transformed into "Beware of God." The piece is extremely clever, with sharp content and an elegant composition.

The thought-provoking NOT YOUR TYPE has only a week left in its run, so you should get over there as soon as you can.

Words also play a major role in Better Times at + Gallery, a chic-looking and intelligently conceived exhibit in the front space that's devoted to some recent pieces by Evan Colbert, one of the most interesting artists in the state. The paintings in this knockout show are the latest in Colbert's decade-long progression of works that combine the influence of minimalism and pop in the service of conceptual art.

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