LEARNING from EXHIBITIONS after HISTORY the Paintings of David Bierk

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, January 2001 | Go to article overview

LEARNING from EXHIBITIONS after HISTORY the Paintings of David Bierk


Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities


David Bierk, an artist who has reconsidered traditions and ideas of the past to create an art for the new millennium, focuses on three distinct subject areas in his paintings: landscapes, still lifes and what the artist calls "history paintings."

Bierk abstracts and adapts these subjects to create personal tributes to the works of such renowned masters as Caravaggio, Vermeer, Ingres, Fantin-Latour, Manet, Bierstadt and Hopper, among others. While basing his compositions on art masterpieces from the past, he places these new images in a contemporary context with a boldness and bravura that is vintage Bierk.

"His artistry rejuvenates them [Old Masters], suggesting that their message remains eternally young and fresh. His handling is filled with the force of life, as though to restore life to the old painting, and above all to remind us of the value of the life it renders, and of life in general. Bierk revitalizes the old masterpieces rather than simply reproducing them."(*)

Born in Appleton, Minn., in 1944, Bierk now resides in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. He studied at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and received a master of fine arts degree from Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif. He has become a citizen of Canada and is a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He has exhibited widely, and his work is included in numerous public collections across North America.

According to Bierk, "My work is a continuous examination of the human condition. My approach is to look back at what has gone before, to consider the state of the present day and to let the paintings become an expression of the resulting dialectic."

This fusion of past and present is amply illustrated in paintings from Bierk's early career through to his most recent creations. His compositions frequently address the nostalgia of our times for the traditional painting styles of previous centuries, while demonstrating how these classic styles have coalesced and been transformed to create the pluralism indicative of the modern age.

Well before the movement or term "appropriation" was coined, Bierk was plumbing the riches of art history for images that suited the direction of his work. As early as 1969, he revisited a Leonardo da Vinci landscape as a background for his own self-portrait. The artist's approach to historical images is not simply curatorial, but conceptual.

The work Bierk creates "after" the masters is never a straight copy, rather it is always contemporized and re-contextualized by adjusting its traditional presentation. Thus, his paintings after the masters are created purely in the spirit of praise, celebration and as an homage to the act of painting.

By rendering Old Master art as a quotation, Bierk strips it of its historical husk, exposing the kernel of eternal meaning that gives it credibility. For Bierk, the act of quotation is an act of idealization, indeed, of revelation. He searches out art that has made history because it tells us something about what seems to be of constant value in human history."*

Bierk represents imagery from the past--transforming it and revitalizing it through his hand, mind and eye. His landscapes are invented, never specific places. They are infused with the ambiance of painters he loves from the 19th century and before. Among his favorites are Constable, Keith, Inness and Church.

Bierk has traveled far and wide, always returning home with photographs of evening skies and cloud-filled vistas. Like the 19th-century American painters whose reverence for landscape was made manifest in paint, Bierk paints poetic and romantic landscapes with layer upon layer of luscious oil pigment. …

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