The traveling exhibition “David Bierk: History” commemorates an artist (1944–2002) known for his interpretations of paintings from the past. Although he is sometimes described as a postmodernist, Bierk avoids the traps of smug revisionism. No tinge of irony corrodes his reverence for the old masters and the giants of the nineteenth century. At the same time, he fully acknowledges the gap separating us from their worlds. Many of the eighteen paintings on view here are appropriations, to use a critically fashionable word, but they can also be placed in the tradition of copying, for centuries a staple of the artist’s education: van Gogh copied Delacroix, who copied Rubens, who copied Michelangelo. Bierk’s copies, however, move into the realm of public performance, as perhaps befits a more self-conscious age. Sometimes, he honed in on details of old master compositions, as in two paintings titled Locked in Migration, to Della Francesca (1998). Both are close-up images of horses from an aristocratic procession. Bierk even simulates blank areas where fresco would flake, although his medium is oil. He emphasizes his distance from the originals by his brushier, more painterly (in the modern sense) use of pigment and by the way he frames the canvas in steel. Aesthetically, the juxtaposition of warm gold and russet paint against cool, dark metal is pleasing, but it also signals the hard, industrial context of today’s world.
Another of Bierk’s distancing devices is to superimpose text over the image. The word believe, in gold, hovers above the prostrate form of an elderly, vulnerably near-naked martyr in A Eulogy to Life (BELIEVE), to Ribera (1996). The Baroque painter’s tenebrous chiaroscuro and poignant realism are effectively reproduced, and the steel panels flanking the central image suggest the architecture of an altarpiece. A Eulogy (MEMORY), Myth & History to Lotto (1999) seems a fairly straightforward copy of the eccentric Renaissance artist’s charming madonna and child with attendant saint and angel, although the tumultuous paint surface distinguishes Bierk’s work from the smooth-skinned original. But the emblazoned word memory emphasizes the pastness of the Renaissance, just as the word eulogy, which appears over again in Bierk’s titles, carries connotations of both praise and lamentation. Dedicating his works to the individual artists he paraphrases, Bierk comes across as humble yet conceptually daring. This is a different kind of history painting, in which art itself has been subsumed into the narrative.
Bierk signals age in a variety of ways. He often glazed his paintings with Damar varnish and gum arabic and baked them so they would look crackled, like a timeworn canvas, or one by Albert Pinkham Ryder. He used this technique in Requiem for a Planet (LIFE), after George Hetzel (1989), a woodland interior. Bierk’s landscapes, whether renditions of older works or original compositions, all testify to his admiration for the Hudson River School and the American vision of paradisal wilderness in the nineteenth century. A Eulogy, to Bierstadt (1996) depicts a campsite under trees with a mountain backdrop; it seems like a muted dream, partly because Bierk has subtly darkened the colors, veiling them with melancholy, and partly because the scene is sandwiched between slabs of dark steel. Locked in Migration, Catskills Clearing (1998), an oil painting matted in rich rusted iron on paper, physicalizes the sense of retrospection with its shadowbox layers. Born in Minnesota, Bierk grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and then immigrated to Canada, where he established Artspace, an artist-run center. “David Bierk: History” opened at the Selby Gallery, Ringling School of Art and Design, is on view at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York City, January 14–February 14, 2006, and ends its tour at the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio, March 5–April 30, 2006.