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 February 2011
Published by Artists of Utah
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Installation view of Paul Vincent Bernard's Guardians, photo by Kelly Green
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Exhibition Review: Salt Lake City

Meaning in Form
Paul Vincent Bernard and Sherman Bloom at the Main Library

The natural landscape may be the primary subject for Paul Vincent Bernard and Sherman Bloom's exhibitions at the Gallery at Library Square, but their abstracted works transcend traditional representations of the genre to investigate essential meanings and structures. Bernard’s series of painted iconic forms, abstracted from geologic elements, defy all specificity to particular being and time and invite the viewer to explore eternal, universal meanings |0| while Bloom’s photographs of flowers and earth refrain from the traditional depictions of nature to explore possibilities of significance and imagination.|1| Appreciating the work of both artists challenges standard means of perception, while discovering meaning in their work results in a show that is visually stimulating and conceptually rewarding.

In Rocks and Flowers: Composition, Texture, Metaphor Sherman Bloom exploits photography's traditional means for new ends. He uses the medium's natural penchant for cropping to investigate formal components within landscape and nature: color, shape, contour, texture, depth and features these elements for their own sake and not as parts to a whole. The viewer is invited to look inward upon Bloom’s subjects with a limitless play of perception and recognition that can render new and imaginative compositions that emerge from these abstracted images.

The first half of this collection features seventeen photographs in dramatic black and white of natural phenomena including canyons, rock formation, and deserts - landscapes familiar to Utahans.|2| Yet Bloom apparently wishes to avoid familiarity, opting for the foreign that comes with displacement. He achieves this sense by the primary technique of eliminating the horizon line in all but one print, as well as intensive contrasts of light and dark, thus distancing these forms from the familiar iconography of a landscape. "Tufa Enclosure of Cappadocia" is assuredly a sandstone outcrop, but it has an immediate effect of feminine sensuality, or numerous other associations that are engendered by this displacement.|3| This technique allows the beauty and character of the land to resonate with the viewer’s imagination and is not limited to a subordinate element of the traditional landscape photograph.

Bloom’s series of eight floral photographs are in graphic color and their compositional focus on the stamen of each flower pushes all negative space outside the frame.|4| Like the landscape photographs, these works achieve a sort of displacement by giving the viewer a visually intense arrangement of pure shape, pattern and color that rouses the imagination. "Phalanopsis in Red and Yellow" seems alive and even intimidating.|5| There is a sense of veritable presences in each of the subjects be it inviting or be it threatening. Both of Bloom’s series allow the viewer to focus on particular structural elements of rocks, of flowers, not sublimated into a formal landscape or still-life, but as its own entity to be discovered for its own beauty. The act of seeing is liberated in a lively response to the compositional use of natural structural elements within these subjects, objects of beauty discovered in a new context, granting a wealth of meaning.

While Bloom’s photographs challenge the traditional landscape as commonly perceived, Paul Vincent Bernard’s works in Guardians: Consideration of Forms in Space and Place are expressive abstract entities that each transcend the static physicality of the land and consider ideas such as being and time.|6| Bernard’s collection is composed of several groupings or phases. Each individual piece in a grouping maintains an expressive narrative quality that signifies their ephemeral and existential state. They each have the potential to incite an aesthetic conversation with the perceptive and curious viewer. Each of the pieces speaks of the past, present and future, of which they are “guardians.” In Bernard’s words these structures are about “geology and the passage of time.”

The most prominent phase within the several groupings in the show consists of the “Guardians” themselves. They may initially bear a resemblance to bold and cold abstract expressionism, but further exposure reveals that they indicate an expressive significance that is palpable.They are above all temporal in their being; they have a history, they exist in the present and the immediate and indicate a future. As Bernard suggests, these formidable entities, “don’t leave a lot of room for the viewer and we become smaller and less significant.” "Guardian of the Plain No. 2" has all of the permanence and monumentality with the sense of mystery and awe of Stonehenge, which, admits Bernard, was part of its inspiration and conception.|7| It looms large and governing like an ancient Babylonian ziggurat and witnesses the passing of time, the ebb and the flow, like the Spiral Jetty. Eight more “Guardians” comprise the series, each with its own space and place; they are “watchers, and we,” says Bernard, “attach our own meaning to them.”

"Wasatch Fault Scarp" and "Kayenta Formation" are two simple canvases that can be read to be as eternal as the land allows.|8| Each contains myriad geological strata with each of these representing its own epoch and these being innumerable in each work. These expressive canvases encourage the viewer to penetrate literal and figurative depths and we find a narrative that defines space and place as much as it defies it in its transcendental mystery. In these empirical mappings of natural phenomenon are imbedded laws of nature beyond any relative history of being and time.

Bernard does not break with the primary subject of temporality in the six visually distinct white, minimally rendered canvases that are composed of a series of repeated marks or the sequential use of the numbers 1 through 12,490. "A Bit More Time or Less" began this phase of the collection with the sickness of Bernard’s mother and culminated eventually with her passing in December.|9| This seemingly exhaustive series is a measure of time, a personally significant work for Bernard that seems to say that “whatever our place, it is small, insignificant, we may not even count.”

In these multi-faceted and inventive works both artists present subjects in form and content that are inspired by the natural world yet evoke themes that transcend the limits of nature to challenge the viewer’s perception and consequently inspire universal meaning. Bloom investigates the sublime beauty that can be observed within the structures of rocks and flowers while Bernard’s geological history of expressive monumental abstractions indicate existential and temporal states of balance. As both artists avoid absolutes and encourage universality the viewer is free to contemplate these images and indulge in a lively and playful response evoked by art that invites a freedom of perception and a universality of meaning unleashing the power of this art seen in its profundity.

Stephen Foss . . . from page 1

Foss’s enamels are an esoteric and unbelievably intractable medium. To see why this matters, it helps to have two paradigms in place. One is their architectural and sign-making use in producing strong, durable colors. Foss knows that his colors cannot fade, but that’s only of interest to salesmen and insurance agents. Up close what we see is that the colors, whether bright or deep, are everywhere pure and sharply delineated. There are no blends or mixtures in evidence. Two colors may swirl around each other like the proverbial ink in water, but where those eventually turn gray, these colors remain pristine. Every bit of color, in yards of surface area, is precisely placed there by the artist. Second, think of bas relief: of a surface not only colored but shaped, so that the visual information of discreet colors is enriched by the fall of light. Almost nowhere does Foss present a smooth surface. Instead, he builds up the shapes in his images as three-dimensional forms. Within the grid he produces, colors behave paradoxically. It becomes impossible to tell if a color was laid on before or after another. A good example is “The Scent of Melting Snow 2,”|1| in which the white background actually lies on top of the painstakingly built up texture beginning in the trees. The tricks paint thus plays with the eye are analogous to the tricks light plays in space. And that brings us back to the what, the point of Foss spending so much time meticulously building up these surfaces: to what can be seen when we stand before them.

A good place to start is with “Hawaii,” small squares the Nesters thoughtfully put by the entrance. At first these bright confections seem unconnected to what hangs beyond. But look closely at their colorful surfaces, now smooth, now puckered: in other works forms like these underlie some radically different patterns, visually intriguing but also like the deep subliminal layering of the mental images we compare them to.|2| Two panels, “Glacier Moraine”|3| and “Expedition,”|4| elicited much comment at the opening. This may be due to a kind of aesthetic economics, in which comparatively large, bold brush strokes seem to achieve more with less. It’s also likely that they profit from the way these looser gestures encourage a viewer’s muscles to a pleasing somatic response. Finally, their black-and-white textures play very successfully with the illusion of verisimilitude. For me, though, the most compelling works were the trio that includes “Scent of Melting Snow,” “Snow Trees,”|0| and “Enticement.”|5| If Jackson Pollock exceeds mere historical interest, his success lies in the way his tangles of free-form lines suggest webs and nets that echo cognitive and sensory patterns known, but perhaps unseen as yet by the artist’s audience. Foss achieves even more here, where dense linear arrangements capture both general and specific facts of experience. In the forest, whether or not it’s made of trees, one struggles to see through to what lies beyond, a concept that applies equally to what lies within. And that may be the point of “Beyond the Horizon:” the horizon is part of us, a moving pre-sentiment that we carry with us and apply as needed.

Snow Trees by Stephen Foss, oil enamel on panel, 48 x 48, courtesy Julie Nester Gallery
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One sort of art freezes a moment in time, capturing what is ephemeral and preserving it. A landscape painting may capture a place, a moment of weather, or a mood, and render it accessible to us when the source is no longer available. It may also, like “Glacier Moraine,” reveal something that was not available to us. Another kind of art effectively cuts through something that seems monolithic and unchanging, perhaps to find out how it works. Degas’ early paintings of the explosively rigid family structures he witnessed constitute geologic diagrams of their tectonic stresses and strains that are far more compelling than the clothing and furniture they incidentally contain.

Of course, really significant paintings do both at once. A Rembrandt self-portrait shows us the painter at a particular moment in his event-filled life, but it also allows him to share with us how it felt to be him. Two of Stephen Foss’s series—land plowed for planting in “An Agrarian Point of View”|6| and studies of water like “Returning Tides” and “The Water’s Edge”|7| —draw comparisons and contrasts between their subjects that favor neither, but are informed by both the countless hours spent contemplating them and the equity of successful and failed paintings exploring their natures and appearances. The painter’s complete control of his medium allows him to show how the reds and greens in the field come from dissolved minerals, from new growth, from the history of the soil, while those in the waves arise in reflections off the water, from context in place rather than time.

From time to time any critic will secretly wish to compel readers to drop what they are doing and hurry to the gallery. This is one of those times. There are moments in history when everything changes: all Renaissance painters can be said to be before Caravaggio; after him came his children, the Baroque. This is not one of those moments. It is unlikely that very many painters will suddenly start to paint like Stephen Foss. That is unfortunate, because he brings an ethical force back into art that scarcely exists outside painting like his. Only an idiot would identify art as nothing more than hard work, but these days too many idiots are trying to get rich while doing no work at all. Like the elaborate anatomical studies that Renaissance artists made before drawing a portrait, Stephen Foss exploits long contemplation and the discipline of enamel paint to capture exactly what makes subjective experience in and of itself worthwhile, without regard to how pretty or passively exciting the thing is we see.

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