Installation view of the Roland Bernier show, with "Wall of Words" in the background.
Installation view of the Roland Bernier show, with "Wall of Words" in the background.

A Retrospective: 20 Years of Roland Bernier

The new Frederic C. Hamilton Building may have created a lot of unanticipated problems for the Denver Art Museum, but its opening also kicked up much of the commercial art world a notch or two. I've said it several times before, but it's still worth noting again: There's never been a stronger art season in Denver than the one we're still in the midst of. This is summer, for heaven's sake, a time for the fluff and puff of lighthearted group shows and outdoor art festivals. Yet in the last couple of months, we've been feted with solos featuring internationally famous artists such as Manuel Neri, as well as outings by many of our local greats, including Bruce Price, John McEnroe, Kim Dickey and Homare Ikeda. I think I need to call this phenomenon the Hamilton Effect.

It will be interesting to see if it holds true for next season, which starts this coming fall. Speaking of which, since it doesn't look like there will be a clear demarcation between on- and off-season this time, I guess the new set of 2007-2008 shows will start on some arbitrary day, and I'm thinking that — like the no-white rule — it will be Labor Day.

Until then, we are still fully under the influence of the Hamilton Effect, as shown in spades at Walker Fine Art, where Retrospective: 20 Years of Roland Bernier is smartly ensconced through July. Unquestionably, the Bernier show is among the very best offerings Walker has ever put on display.

The reference to twenty years in a title that also includes the word "retrospective" might lead some to imagine that Bernier is a guy in his forties. Do the math: Twenty years ago was 1987, and people typically embark on their careers when they're in their twenties and fresh out of school. But while the show itself may only go back to the '80s, Bernier's overall oeuvre dates back to the 1950s.

"I turned 75 in February," Bernier says with eyebrows raised. It's hard to believe it when looking at him or considering his workaholic habits in the studio, but even harder still when you take in the work at Walker, which is as hip as any twenty-something's. Then again, that's no surprise, since Bernier was doing conceptual installations as early as four decades ago!

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1932, Bernier joined the Air Force right out of high school. When his hitch was up, in 1954, he was at a base in Austin, Texas, home to the University of Texas. He enrolled and earned his BFA in three years — in what was a five-year program. He went on to get his MFA at the University of Southern California in 1960, then returned to Texas, settling in Houston. His association with the Houston Museum of Fine Arts — then a full-fledged colony of New York — gave him many opportunities to exhibit and sell his pieces, which were in the style of abstract expressionism.

Seeking the bigtime, Bernier moved to Manhattan in 1966, and there, too, exhibited at top venues, including the famous Modern Masters Gallery. His style was rapidly evolving, however, and it was during this period that he began to use letters as compositional devices.

In 1972 he departed New York, capriciously leaving his work behind in his studio; as a result, the only New York-era pieces known to exist are those that were sold off to private collectors. (The same is true for his Houston-era work, because he split from there in essentially the same way.)

Bernier and his wife, Marilyn, bounced around the country for a year, finally landing in Denver, which was then attracting counterculture types from all over. Bernier was lucky enough to land an art-friendly day job teaching for Denver's Parks and Recreation Department, but it meant that he gave up making his own work for around ten years. In 1985, he went back to the studio in earnest, and a couple of years later started to exhibit around here, first at Cydney Payton Art Folio, and then at a series of top venues.

The '80s is where the show at Walker starts, but nearly everything is from the late '90s to the present, which means that one of my favorite Bernier periods is entirely left out: the all-over calligraphic paintings of the early to mid-'90s. Bernier, on the other hand, doesn't care for these paintings and dismisses them as decorative. But he's very critical of his own work, and clearly doesn't value it as much as he should.

The sole '80s piece is an untitled acrylic on paper that is absolutely sublime. It pre-figures those calligraphic paintings mentioned above, but also anticipates his later work, in which full words are the subject and the form.

"Body Language," from 1996, and "Second Thoughts," from 1997, are nearly square wall-hung wooden rectangles covered with raised wooden letters that form words wrapped in color photocopies. They're gorgeous. These mixed-media pieces are closely associated with the pair of Bernier works in the DAM's permanent collection, "Mouth Piece" and "Lip Service."

Several major works in the Walker show were exhibited in Bernier's 2001 solo at the DAM, Between the Lines, which was hung in the soon-to-be-defunct Close Range Gallery. Established by curator-emeritus Dianne Vanderlip, the Close Range showcased artists who are associated with this region. Vanderlip's successor, Christoph Heinrich, has no such regional interest, and as a result, Close Range will wither away. It's a tragedy.

First among the pieces reprised from the Close Range show is "Wall of Words," an entire wall covered in words created with laser-cut mirrored Plexiglas pieces. The version here is a fragment of what was at the DAM, and Bernier, with Marilyn's help, reconfigured it to fit the smaller space at Walker. The wall behind the mirrors was painted red, and the whole thing is visually stunning. Also originally seen in the Close Range are a group from Bernier's "Wood Works" series, in which words made from letters cut out of unfinished plywood are stacked up within showcases that sit on rectilinear plywood bases. They're very aloof — and very cool.

In the early 2000s, Bernier began to break away from rectangular shapes and create wall pieces in the round — which make up his "Talking in Circles" series of 2001 — and works in the form of a cross, done for his "Cross Words" series of 2002.

The most recent items in the Walker show push this interest in unlikely shapes further still. For the twelve two-part sculptures in his "A Word in Hand" collection, Bernier used his own hands as the form. He began by making molds of his upturned hands, which he cast in hard plaster. He then created designs using various source materials, including playing cards, the Yellow Pages and magazine photos. Next, he made color photocopies of the resulting designs, which were subsequently cut up into strips and wrapped around the plaster hands. In the palms are short two- or three-letter words that spell out the title of the individual piece, such as "Eh," "To," "Pot" and "Day."

Leave it to Bernier to take a radical turn — and at his age, no less. Catch up with his latest efforts in A Retrospective: 20 Years of Roland Bernier, now at Walker Fine Art.

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