Two Colorado artists show off their signature styles at Walker Fine Art

Bobbi Walker has pushed her gallery in a positive direction over the past few years, and Walker Fine Art is now a place to see noteworthy shows — something that wasn't necessarily true five years ago. Part of Walker's success is that she's pulled in some important Colorado artists who either had no Denver gallery representative or who'd had a falling-out with the one they did have. The current show, I Gotcha Covered, is a case in point. It pairs premier conceptualist Roland Bernier with abstract sculptor Bill Vielehr.

Bernier is one of the greatest artists who has ever worked in Colorado. Born in Rhode Island in 1932, he wound up at the University of Texas in Austin, where he got his BFA in 1957; he earned an MFA at the University of Southern California in 1960. He returned to Texas and taught at various institutions there before moving to New York in 1966. But in the spirit of those freewheeling times, Bernier impulsively left New York in 1972, abandoning his work in his studio. He landed in Denver the following year and has been here ever since.

I first became aware of Bernier's work in the late '80s, at which time he was doing abstract pattern paintings made up of forms that suggested primitive writing, like cuneiform, with the enigmatic symbols organized both horizontally and vertically. This interest in words and letters — or hypothetical letters, as in the aforementioned abstracts — dates back to the early 1960s, when Bernier was living in Houston. But it wasn't until the mid-1990s that he began to exclusively do collages, wall sculptures and installations made up of English letters that spelled out words. What this meant was that he emphatically left abstraction behind to embrace conceptualism.

Although the word pieces in his last show at Spark Gallery did convey meanings — beer cans were used to spell out "beer can," for example — Bernier also sometimes employs words that are random and are randomly connected to other words, making the letters a formal component as opposed to a narrative one. And he's done that in spades for his latest work at Walker, a multi-part installation also called "I Gotcha Covered."

With words as his medium of choice, Bernier went to the source for this endeavor, deconstructing the words down to their elemental form in the letters of the alphabet and carrying out every one from A to Z. He chose a chaste, unadorned block-print font, making each form essentially minimalist. The letters are cut from thin sheets of wood that are covered with black-and-white photocopies on paper. These are then covered with an all-over pattern created from the repeated image of Bernier's signature, which is subtle compared to the overall shapes of the letters.

Incorporating his own name plays with the title of the installation: Bernier literally covers his pieces with the word "Bernier," hence "I Gotcha Covered." Finally, each letter has a sheet of cut-to-shape clear Plexiglas over it. Every one of the letters can be imagined as being its own stand-alone piece, but Bernier intends for them to be seen as a singular whole.

The only knock I can make on the show is that Walker's space is too informal for it, with that broad passage to the back spaces and the window wall up front. These fixtures, which can hardly be changed, interrupt the overall view of the alphabet, and that's too bad. I imagined how great it would look in one of the formal galleries on the lower level of the Arvada Center or, better yet, any space at MCA Denver. In fact, it brought to mind a show Bernier did ten years ago at the Denver Art Museum, in the old Close Range Gallery in the Gio Ponti building. (Hey, remember when local artists actually got solos at the DAM? That tradition really should be brought back.) The point is, it's time for Bernier to be the subject of another museum show around here.

I'd say the same thing about sculptor Vielehr, a longtime Colorado artist who also deserves to get his due in the museum world.

Born in Chicago in 1945, Vielehr grew up in Boulder, where he is now based. In the '60s, he earned a BFA at Colorado State University in Fort Collins and did graduate work there in 1969. He's been exhibiting his work since then.

The pieces at Walker are classic Vielehrs while also representing a progression toward more complex forms. Vielehr has long referenced columnar shapes, and his latest works are inspired by the shapes of ruined columns from ancient Greek and Roman buildings. What is new is the way he conveys the sense of ruined columns by executing some of them as segmented stacks that look as though they are about to fall down. This device is very effective in the wonderful "Time Support System," which seriously lists to one side. Also precarious is the in-and-out form of "Attack on Meaning." I loved them.

Although he is known for his sculptures, Vielehr sees his pieces more as three-dimensional drawings and paintings. He communicates this with the abstract scratches, lines and three-dimensional shapes that cover the surfaces of his sculptures. He is able to create these marks during the casting process. The cast aluminum is then polished to a beautiful finish and left in its natural color (though in some pieces it's combined with equally striking bronze tones). From a distance, the columns have a rough-hewn character because of their overall shape, but when looked at closely, there's the luxuriousness of jewelry in those heavily worked surfaces.

Earlier, I noted that gallery director Walker had jacked up the quality of her venue by attracting established talents like Bernier and Vielehr, but she's also recruited young emerging artists, and three of those are showcased in the back section of the gallery in an untitled display. This is standard at Walker, which always features a selection of artists from its stable as a supplement to the primary exhibit.

First up is a group of M. Vlasic's spectacular hyper-realist views of hip kids that show off her virtuoso technical skills in rendering, color and composition. Off to the right are some great neo-pop/neo-dada paintings and mixed-media works by Eric Michael Corrigan that exemplify conceptual abstraction. Both artists have earlier had knockout shows at Walker. And finally, Walker is introducing a remarkable young abstract painter named Danny Williams, who creates elegant monochromes in strident jewel tones. Among the most compelling features of these paintings is the showy surface effects produced by manipulating the physical properties of the pigment to make arching patterns. These pieces are tremendous, and Williams is a painter worth watching.

It's still too early to declare Walker Fine Art part of the elite stratosphere of Denver art venues — the museums and the best galleries — but clearly the place has come a long way in a relatively short time.

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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