A principal benefit of following the Denver art scene is the wealth of local artists who pursue their work oblivious to the shifting sands of contemporary trends. Sometimes, though, a solitary approach can lead an artist right into the middle of those trends. That's apparently what's happened with Roland Bernier's recent work, which is the subject of Words and Pictures, a mammoth single-artist exhibit at Mackey Gallery that is made up completely of mixed-media works that have never been shown before.

When the 63-year-old Bernier premiered his work some five years ago, it was readily apparent that Denver had a brand-new old master. His geometric-pattern paintings revealed a skilled and practiced hand, and Bernier's admirable depth of accomplishment as a colorist and a designer was also easy to see. Viewers were thus little surprised to learn that Bernier had previously worked in the country's centers of vanguard art--Los Angeles and New York--as well as the veritable Manhattan colony of Texas, the Houston Museum of the Fine Arts, where he taught.

Today Bernier dismisses his works of five years ago, saying they were "decorative." But he makes the distinction that his use of this highly charged word is not, for him, inherently "a degradation, but rather simply terminology. I always saw them as colorful writing, even if they weren't saying anything. I always saw them as calligraphy."

By 1993 Bernier's work had undergone a subtle change. Over or between his painted patterns, which were themselves now more loosely executed, he included elemental forms such as arrows and ovals. And more important, in light of his recent work, he embraced the thoroughly contemporary (and increasingly popular in the last decade) use of the printed word. Like the work in the Mackey show, those words often spelled out cliches.

That doesn't mean, however, that the earlier work prepares us for the new pieces, which are radically different. These recent works, created in the last year and a half, fall into two distinct categories: large grids of color Xerox images of photo-based collages captioned with text, and monumental multipanel paintings or mixed-media wall pieces in which the words become the principal formal device Bernier employs.

The sheer number of pieces in the latter group, along with the high degree of craftsmanship, suggests that Bernier has an inspiring level of creative energy. One handsomely made work that carries a big visual punch is "Wood Stock," a diptych of plywood covered with words made of cut-out letters. The words "wood" and "stock" are placed in the top left-hand corner of the two adjoining panels. The other words in the piece don't relate to the title but instead have been chosen by Bernier with an eye toward denying the inherent narrative quality of language.

"I'd flip through the dictionary from A to Z, choosing words at random, [and] when I ran out of pages, I started at the front again," recalls Bernier. "In New York in the Sixties, I had done `concrete poetry,' where I wrote poems and stenciled them on my paintings. With these, I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to use the words as forms and not use their meanings." However, the pieces include so many words that viewers will likely be tempted to link them together anyway, projecting their own stories onto the pieces. And Bernier intended that.

Other masterful pieces on display include "Lip Service" and "Mouth Piece," two closely related works that feature the same approach as "Wood Stock," where text covers the panel. Here, though, the plywood letters are carefully wrapped in color Xerox copies of collages made up of magazine photos of women's lips.

One of the most compelling aspects of Words and Pictures is the incredibly large selection of work, which provides us with an in-depth view of Bernier's current concerns. But don't think you've seen all the pieces associated with this theme yet--more than a dozen major works were left out owing to space limitations. The prolific Bernier says he makes his art the same way he plays golf. "But with golf," he adds, "there's somebody in front of you to slow you down. There's nobody in front of me in the studio.

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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