Art Review

Art Review: Getting the Concept with Unexpected Narratives and Roland Bernier

Last week, I suggested a Venn diagram for contemporary painting, sculpture and installation in which there were three circles: representation, abstraction and conceptualism. At that time, I talked about the overlap between representation and abstraction. This time, though, I’d like to address not only the point at which abstraction and conceptualism overlap, but also the separate spaces that they occupy on the diagram.

I’ll begin with Unexpected Narratives at Walker Fine Art, which is made up of works by a quartet of artists. Director Bobbi Walker has long embraced this four-artist format, but she usually picks artists from a wide range of stylistic expressions as opposed to those working in compatible ways, as is the case this time. She tells me that this thematically organized approach is the wave of the future for these foursomes at Walker — and I think it’s a great idea.

Unexpected Narratives includes two artists who are clearly in the abstract camp. The first of these is the late Bill Vielehr. A widely respected Boulder-based contemporary sculptor whose career stretched back decades, Vielehr died in 2014. The show includes examples of both types of his signature work: wall-relief panels and freestanding sculpture. The panels are made of cast and fabricated bronze or aluminum, with one using a combination of both metals. Their scabrous surfaces are organized into subtle, non-objective compositions; some contain geometric elements, like the circles and rectangles in “Aluminum Wall Relief.”

These works could be described as three-dimensional paintings. “Chrome Drawing,” on the other hand, exemplifies Vielehr’s preferred shape for freestanding sculptures — a columnar form. It’s a simple tall cylinder made of cast and fabricated aluminum that has a shiny surface except for the places where Vielehr has violated it with jagged splits that run up the sides.

The other abstract artist in Unexpected Narratives is painter Ben Strawn; like Vielehr, his works are examples of contemporary modernism. Strawn embraces a mid-century-modern look, creating pieces that are stylistical heirs to abstract expressionism. They feature lots of instinctually derived compositional elements that Strawn often outlines in black and further emphasizes through emphatic shifts in color. In “Geisha,” for instance, curved shapes, which fill the entire composition, have been fleshed out in green, taupe, red and amber. Another standout is “Suspicion of the Moon,” which features a complex ground of colliding color fields on top of which Strawn has struck a few lines in either black or blue. I’ve always thought that Strawn’s sense for color was outstanding, and this recent batch of paintings reinforces that impression.

The other two artists in Unexpected Narratives do conceptual pieces. The first is Bryan Leister, who has exhibited his digitally based installations internationally. He is interested in the blurring the line between reality and perception. On the side wall, Leister has painted a columbine, the state flower, and below it, a bent circular chart. To the naked eye, the imagery appears to be out of register. However, with the aid of trioscopic glasses — those cardboard 3-D eyeglasses — the image seems to jump off the wall. Fool-the-eye devices are also employed in the lenticular prints depicting preposterous inventions like a multi-winged plane and a flying car. These “inventions” are views of the future from the past.

Finally, there is the installation “Provisional Futures,” created from a phone and custom software that allows viewers to see the imaginary futures Leister has conjured up. Leister calls digital code his “medium of choice,” and he uses it to carry out his wide range of work in various mediums.

The other conceptual artist here is the late Roland Bernier. Like Leister, Bernier was also interested in codes; in his case, though, it wasn’t digital writing, but actual writing in the form of words. Bernier became a key figure in the contemporary scene in Denver beginning in the 1980s and was active until just a year before his death last summer. He had initially achieved success with his paintings, collages and other works on paper, which could be loosely described as abstractions with all-over patterns. Then, in the ’90s, he turned to using words as his principal compositional device, and he never looked back.

Walker, which represents the estate on behalf of the artist’s widow, Marilyn Bernier, has brought out his word pieces. Instantly recognizable as a Bernier is the magisterial “Wood Stock,” which comprises a pair of wooden panels covered in words spelled out in letters cut from the same wood. The letters are set on the panels in high relief, with the whole thing left the natural color of the wood. It’s really a knockout, as is “Sugar Daddy,” a closely related piece. In the latter, cut-out letters have been laid on a pair of panels, and all of it has been covered in photocopies of paper money.

As soon as you finish up at Walker, you really need to head over to Spark, where the Bernier salute continues in The Seen and Unseen: Roland Bernier. A number of the pieces at Spark are related to those at Walker, like “Talking in Circles: Moo Tag,” a wooden framework in the form of an open circle outlined in words, with the letters and the framework both covered with photocopied images.

In one set of collages are several four-letter words, including “hurt” and “fist.” The composition has two letters on top and two on the bottom, their shapes formed from cut-up photocopies of an American flag. A little more out there is “Talking Through Your Hat,” which consists of five hats covered with photocopies of newsprint done in an array of bright monochromes.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Bernier show at Spark is the rarely seen older works. As much as I’ve followed Bernier’s career over the years, I had never seen anything like the trio of drawings comprised of straight lines and letters from the ’60s, when the artist lived in New York. There is one example of his acrylic-on-paper paintings from the ’80s; it’s made up of a line of vertically oriented colored bars. Best of all is a sublime mixed-media pattern painting, “Graffiti Series-Untitled,” from the early ’90s.

Though he was associated with many galleries over the years, Bernier was a member of Spark for a long time. He believed Spark allowed him to exhibit what he wanted, free from market constraints. Last summer, just a month or two after he died, the Spark membership decided to mount this memorial exhibit, with works selected by Sue Simon, Elaine Ricklin and Madeleine Dodge.

It’s a nice honor, especially along with the pieces at Walker. But I still feel it is way past due for a major local institution to mount a proper retrospective of Bernier’s astounding accomplishments. It’s the least Denver could do for someone who gave so much to us over so long a time.

Unexpected Narratives
Through March 12 at Walker Fine Art, 300 West 11th Avenue, #A, 303-355-8955,

Roland Bernier
Through February 14 at Spark Gallery, 900 Santa Fe Drive, 720-889-2200,

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia

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