The Canadian Art Database

John K. Grande

David Bierk: Selected Histories

[ 1,439 words ]

David Bierk mines the pantheon of art history. Objects, landscape, interiors, once painted to reify a particular reality and cultural hegemony, are orchestrated, brought into compositions, juxtaposed. The resulting artworks are alliterations, build layers of meaning, where the original art historical contexts collide, thus establishing a shift in meaning. The juxtaposition of art from different eras within a single composition is daring, and correspondingly invokes a new set of meanings. A simultaneity develops where visual matrices, detailed down to the very aging cracks, the bodices and portrait faces, the Dutch interiors and pristine landscape representations, become metaphors for the fleeting nature of life itself.

Imagery has become so accessible in our era. We could be looking at an image of an African mask one moment, at a comic book the next, and then at a car commercial on television. Each element has been streamlined, edited, reduced to a minimum in our mind's eye so as to present an idea of what a representation should be. We often reflect on nature, though most of us live in cities. Yet though our experience tells us otherwise, we prefer to envision nature in simple terms, as an untouched, virginal place. The decline of any tactile sense of reality (the nature we are part of) has been hastened by the real state of contemporary culture. Simultaneity is the visible horizon on which images are interpreted. It occurs in text, screen and televised media. It is this relativistic reading of information — visual, textual — that has reduced our belief in an absolute truth.

By colliding contexts, manipulating, rearranging, presenting details or highlights of old masters portraits, landscapes, and intimate interiors, even altering the scale and dimensions of the source paintings, David Bierk suggests we experience reality as a simulacrum of physical imagery. Whether it be a billboard on a highway, or a streamlined building, the signage and the symbol are hybridized and predesigned. We simplify it into a visual syntax we have been conditioned to by the times we live in. Yet we still believe there is truth in what we see, in the visible, and this is the key to David Bierk's process. He selects paintings from many specific pasts, so as to challenge our understanding of the way we read images. Visual content is rearranged through the lens of our current technology, scales are distorted, aggrandized or diminished. Visual fragments become cues that allow us to bring a new reading to images from other times, other places.

Emblazoned on several of these paintings are words. These, like the steel panels that surround some of them, are cold and post-modern. A Euology to Art (LIFE, to van Aelst], for instance, has the word LIFE etched across the centre, while A Euology (Still Life), after Thayer has the phrase STILL LIFE etched across it. A Claude Lorrain landscape became the source for an interpretive David Bierk landscape, and includes the word MEMORY. These messages are neither subliminal nor subtle, yet engender a sense of the way words can have the effect of editing our visual reality. The word TREE, for instance, might stop us from going further to investigate its complexity: the trunk, the bark, the foliage, its intricacy. Stating or defining simplifies things in our mind's eye. (A picture is worth a thousand words.)The words are integral to some of these paintings, but are like a blind mark or date stamp.

Arranged in a horizontal row on a shelf installed on a wall, three paintings actually "cover" hardbound editions of Connoisseur magazines from around 1905. They have been sealed up like time capsules. The content of these volumes — printed and visual information from another era — has been covered over, negated and erased through their reconfiguration as objects. These objects now become visual subjects, with two Romantic landscapes, one of dawn on the left and the other of dusk to the right. They are visual parentheses, representations of an idealized nature, that surround the central composition, an interior detail from Vermeer's Woman Holding a Balance. The central Vermeer image depicts domesticity, worldly goods and material harmony, while the nature representations are idealized. Wasn't the traditional landscape as much a representation of the worldly wealth of its patron as the traditional portrait or narrative painting?

Looking through the rear-view mirror at art and history, we have the capacity to adapt, simplify, deconstruct any context and meaning at will. These paintings are no longer associated with a linear or progressive model of time, and reconfigured as they are, stimulate altogether different associations, even as we understand something of their original message. The positioning of the paintings (cultural objects) is linear yet the message is ontological, suggests that history is a continuum, rather than a succession of movements, of eras, or a time line. David Bierk subtly subverts our sense that there can ever be a stability, a paradigm, or a simple explanation for the phenomenon of time past, future or present. The message is ultimately about the dichotomies that arise out of our desire to explain any ultimate inner truth in a world where we interpret reality as imagery, and imagery itself is a commodity.

Art is, and has always been, influenced by the technologies of its era. The new media in today's world enables us to splice, layer and diffuse imagery in a way that was never before possible. The accessibility of imagery renders it public in a way it has never before been. The intention of the classical artists may have been altogether different. The private icon, becomes an object, and now an image. This is what Marshall McLuhan referred to when he stated: "Without the countervailing balance of natural and physical laws, the new video-related media will make man implode upon himself. (...) His body will remain in one place but his mind will float out into the electronic void, being everywhere at once in the data bank." (The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century, Oxford U. Press, 1989, p. 97) David Bierk pulls art out of context to give it a new relevance as contemporary signifier. Because images abound, they are devalorized, yet Bierk plays on this central irony, on our belief that what we see with our eyes - manipulated or not - is a kind of truth. Situated outside time, or as if the art of many times stood still, the order is reversed; past becomes future and the future becomes past.

An altarpiece, when closed, depicts a Dutch still life floral painting. When opened, we see a painting of Vermeer's Woman in a Red Hat. The steel side panels inside are cold and have an industrial harshness that counters the colour and pageantry of Vermeer's subject. The image crop here, as elsewhere, decontextualizes the Vermeer to an extent. The same effect is achieved in a series of portrait heads. Two are close-up details of heads from old master paintings (one a Vermeer, the other an Ingres), while the third, a fashion industry shot painted in black and white, is a cold contemporary icon surrounded by steel on all four sides. These facial portraits, rendered close-up as they are, become universal psychological studies of the human face from different eras.

Bierk has juxtaposed a Petrus Christus head of a woman in a Romantic landscape faithful to the original. This portrait and the landscape it has been layered onto, present us with the idea that these images — the landscape and the portrait — are united by a basic humanism. The component colours are close to each other, even if the subjects are vastly different. An interdependence exists in the pure aesthetic of two kinds of representation from different selected eras. In another piece, the Petrus Christus fragment is used again, this time juxtaposed next to one of Manet's last flower paintings. Bierk's recurrent use of the image is intentional. It is an example of the way Bierk selects, edits each historical element he introduces, delving into history to emphasize the temporal nature of life itself. A night landscape with moon juxtaposed next to a late Manet flower painting does the same. The steel that surrounds it provides a cue to its being of our time. These two represented fragments of nature, the minimal flourish of colour seen in the Manet and the maximal eternal landscape play on and with our notions of history, time, memory, life.

Resurrecting and reconfiguring images from the pantheon of art history, David Bierk challenges the context and meaning of art from a variety of eras. His paintings are neither resurrections nor constructions. While he may juxtapose paintings from different eras in a single work, or situate a classical work in today's context, building steel, copper or rusted metal infrastructures, or adding textual word components to his compositions, the altered scales, the added elements, and the novel contexts are of Bierk's own design. The style has less to do with original narrative than with this unique layering of symbol, subject and composition. It generates new meanings, situating his art in the here and now. Art and History are in the eyes of the beholder.

Text: © John K. Grande. All rights reserved.

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