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Wordsmith

"Word Works #1," by Roland Bernier, plywood installation (photographed in the artist's studio).

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.

"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.

In 1966, Bernier moved to New York. He got a job teaching at the city's recreation department at the Strovich Center and exhibited his work in New York galleries, including the Modern Masters Gallery. He began to experiment widely, creating not only paintings, but also sculptures and even entire environments. And he increasingly turned to the use of letters and words as compositional elements free of any meaning.

In 1972 he left New York impulsively, deserting his work, which was left behind in his studio. Because of this, Bernier knows of only a few New York-era paintings -- ones purchased by private collectors -- that still exist.

He and his wife, Marilyn, landed in Denver in 1973, and Bernier got a job teaching art for Denver's parks and recreation department at the city's Park Avenue Center. But even though he was teaching art, he gave up making it for almost ten years. Then, in 1985, he returned to the studio and began to create abstractions that included not letters or words, but simple repeated shapes that could have been inspired by them. In a few years, though, the words were back, and they've dominated Bernier's compositions since the early 1990s.

His Denver premier was at the tiny but significant Cydney Payton Artfolio, where his paintings were seen in group exhibits. In the fifteen years since he began showing his work in Denver, Bernier has been featured in a number of local galleries and museums. In the mid-1990s, the DAM acquired two pieces for its permanent collection, the first step for any artist who would like a show in the Close Range.

As we enter the gallery proper, the view is taken over by a pair of mammoth pieces. On the back wall is "Wall of Words: 'More or Less,'" a 2001 mural made from words in laser-cut plexi-mirror letters arranged on a field of that green shade also seen in the anteroom. Bernier most often cuts the letters himself or employs an assistant to do it, but for these, he had a plastics fabricator execute them. The effect of the reflective letters is tremendous, visually expanding the piece and making the viewer a part of it. The words Bernier uses are of random length and include such juxtapositions as "dodge" with "laminate" and "reservation" with "saloon." "Wall of Words" is unforgettable.

And so is "Word Works #1," a large floor sculpture completed in 2001. This piece comprises a set of identical rectangular bases made of unfinished plywood. On top, Bernier has stacked words made from five plywood letters. The words are piled a dozen high and arranged in six rows. Each subsequent level of words obscures the level below. The top layer is readable, but since the letters have been cut from the same plywood as the bases, the piece is essentially monochromatic.

Further on is an interesting piece that recalls Bernier's earlier abstractions, 2000's "Words of Wisdom," in which the plywood words and the board to which they are adhered have all been covered with photocopied pages of scribbled notes. The pages are mostly white with black writing, over which Bernier has placed a non-repeating pattern of colored squares, rectangles and lines in green, blue, pink, yellow and red.

Another striking painting is "Green Rapper," which is made up of six-letter words cut from plywood in eight vertical rows of forty words each. Most of the piece is that same leaf green seen elsewhere, but since the letters are raised against the backing, there is a lot of variation in color, the product of the shadows cast by the three-dimensional letters. In the bottom left of the composition, Bernier has painted the word "at" in large black letters on top of the other words.

The rest of the show is filled out with a body of photocopied prints and a group of stiles constructed of plywood and plexiglas. All of them feature words.

It's a good thing this solo is so strong, because until June 23, when the blockbuster show, European Masterpieces, opens in both the Hamilton and Stanton galleries, Between the Lines will be the only thing open on the main floor of the DAM. When European Masterpieces does come on line, however, the throngs of people it brings in will have a chance to see Bernier's work as they cool their heels waiting for their allotted entry time.  

So if you'd like to stay ahead of the crowded tour buses that will surely be pulling up to the place, check out Bernier's show in the next couple of weeks.


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