Review: Roland Bernier’s “In Other Words” at the Arvada Center

The Arvada Center has carved out a crucial role in Colorado art by producing exhibitions that define careers. Arvada has the room –10,000 square feet of gallery space — and a keen sense of place and that allows it to dive deep into the output of painters, sculptors and other artists who endeavored over many years to make a mark on this region.

These retrospectives, best presented long into artists’ working lives — and beyond the euphemistic “mid-career” label — offer a chance to size up contributions over the long haul. When they are done deftly, and when the material is there, they can change reputations, taking an artist from “well-respected” to “important.”

Arvada’s showcase on Virginia Maitland, produced in 2018,  was just such a stature enhancer, revealing the painter to be not just talented but also a trailblazer in the field. It was a confirmation but also a surprise.

But these shows can also happen with great effect after an artist has died — not too long after when it is an exercise in resurrection, but soon after, within a decade or so when the jury is still out on their prominence. That is the crucial period when artists are forgotten or made a part of local history.

That is the circumstance of the gallery’s current exhibition of work by Roland Bernier, who died in 2015 after a decades-long career centered mostly in Denver. Bernier was prolific and admired; both the man and his work were easy to like.

Bernier worked in acrylic paint, wood, tin and other materials, and his subject matter was letters, those 26 language tools, familiar to everyone, that he used most often to spell out words. He would paint them on canvas, apply them to other objects, or cut them out in wood.

He purposefully did not string his words into sentences in a way that would allow viewers to interpret them for their meaning. Instead, he put them together randomly, or incoherently, so the focus remained on their physical form.

The works are appealing in that way. People can relate to letters and words, and because we so habitually use them as communication devices rather than artistic muses, there is a tendency to try to read them in order to understand what the artist is saying. Bernier’s works look like puzzles you are expected to solve — until you realize you can’t.

If you go

Roland Bernier “In Other Words” continues through Nov. 14 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada. It’s free. Info at 720-898-7200 or arvadacenter.org.

Let’s read one: CAVE AGED EAST DUST. That’s from Bernier’s 1998 “Mumbo Jumbo,” made from wood that he painted black, stacked into a rectangle and encased in plexiglas. Like many of his works, the words are upper case and have the same number of letters, giving the pieces logical shapes if not decipherable messages.

There also is a tendency to try to categorize these works as abstract, and maybe they are. Words themselves are pure abstraction. They are not the thing they represent but abstracted symbols we string together to communicate. The word “dog” is not a dog; it is a linguistic construct.

And the fact that Bernier assembled words opposite of their intended use compels us to see them as abstracted messages; as creative writing or even a form of poetry.

But I would argue that they are the opposite, that his works are largely representational. Bernier painted and sculpted words and letters and did so with clarity and precision.

He wasn’t a writer, just the opposite. Instead of using letters as a means to an end, they were the end themselves. He respected their form and construction, the way they looked, and he spent a long time exploring their essence, capturing their individual personalities, communicating the way it feels to consume them, much in the same way other artists try to depict sunsets or lilies or the human body.

This exhibit, titled “In Other Words,” lets viewers decide how they want to classify Bernier, and it offers up plenty of evidence to sort through. Organized by the Arvada Center’s curatorial staff in collaboration with his wife, Marilyn Bernier, and Walker Fine Art, the gallery that still represents him, it is rich in examples in various shapes and sizes and media.

As the gallery text points out, Bernier was born in 1932 and began his career as an abstract expressionist. He started incorporating letters into his work in the 1960s and there are some samples of those in the show.

But it focuses on his personal comeback, starting in the 1980s, after he took a decade off from art-making and returned with paintings that incorporated “pseudo-calligraphic elements and symbols.” That morphed, in the 1990s, into his final phase of employing mostly words into his work.

The show zeroes in on the final period. There are two-dimensional works, such as the acrylic on paper “Bush,” which repeats the word “BUSH” multiple times.

There also are three-dimensional works in which Bernier cut out letters in various media and layered them in piles, arranged them in circles or, in one series, loaded them neatly onto wheeled carts.

He was playing, of course, investigating, capturing his subject in various ways, similar to how a portrait artist might ask a model to hold a pose, draw the scene, then ask for another pose to capture. He does it again and again.

Out of that experimentation came his best moments. Those pieces, several on view in Arvada, are where viewers let go of their desire to make sense of things and appreciate the pieces as portraits and not as text.

It is art made from hard work, a lifetime of it, and this exhibit makes that clear through shear abundance. The best way to fully appreciate Bernier as an artist is to experience his output in bulk, to see it come together in a retrospective of this size. There are brilliant pieces here, not everything, but enough to understand his unique contribution to his own time and place, and how he labored to make that happen.

This show does define Bernier’s career and it does argue, effectively, that he deserves to be remembered, appreciated for his skills and to take his place in local art history.

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