You can go home again, but it won’t be the same. The physical place may change with time, but the idea of home is etched into us like a tattoo. We can harbour an implacable longing and revulsion for home as we learn to coexist with our ghosts, including the ghost of our former self. If you return to your home town a different person that you were when you left, how do you get people to see that? What does home look like when you look to the future through the eyes of your children? With his exhibition Forerunners, on at Artspace, Alex Bierk thoughtfully confronts his shadows.
The signature work of the exhibit is “Down the Line,” a monochrome, photorealistic oil painting of the trestle bridge south of Millennium Park. It is the same bridge where men imbibe in misery and comradery, the same bridge where malcontent teenagers dare each other to dive into the river on hot summer nights. More than a camera could, Bierk has captured its lacy, turn-of-the-century industrial elegance, its vanishing point redolent with the anguish and anticipation of youth.
Artspace Director Jon Lockyer says, “Alex’s work is striking in not only its attention to detail—Bierk’s technical work as a painter is arresting to say the least—but also in its ability to capture the quotidian moments of day-to-day life in Peterborough and connect them to a larger narrative of the artists’ adolescence and adulthood spent in the city. While Alex’s work is undoubtedly personal, I believe it will resonate with anyone who has spent any of their formative years in Peterborough.”
Echoing the show is an exhibit in Gallery 2 by five high school students—David Bigg, Emily Duffey, Avery Morris, Skylar Ough, and Rachel Burns—most of whom have exhibited with the DROOL Collective, and, like Bierk, studied with local arts educator Cydnee Hosker. Their small, photo-like depictions of the same haunting trestle bridge, unremarkable urban landscapes, and youthful disaffection bear an uncanny resonance with Bierk’s work.
Still in his early 30s, Bierk is already a rarity: a self-supporting artist. Toronto’s trendy General Hardware Contemporary carries his work, and he has been featured in art fairs in Montreal, Miami, and New York City. He was a finalist for the Kingston Prize in 2013 and chosen as one of Leah Sandals’ Top 3 Picks in 2014 for Canadian Art Magazine. Sandals called the work a “marrying of personal vulnerability and aesthetic sophistication.” In 2016 he was named one of the 10 most talked about painters in Toronto right now by blogTO.
He gives a nod to a highly creative family, but is largely self-taught. Through a job at Woolfitt’s Art Supplies he met his wife, as well as painter Kim Dorland, who subsequently hired him as a studio assistant. Bierk purchased supplies, shipped art, learned the ropes of running a professional studio, and got an introduction to galleries across the country.
While it is easy to draw a parallel to Chuck Close’s super-sized, unflinching, photorealistic portraits, Bierk’s small desaturated paintings evoke the emotional tone of Edward Hopper’s lonesome cityscapes, along with an edgy touch of Goya-esque light and shadow.
The paintings begin with Bierk’s photographs, with oft-recurring themes of night highways and headlights, and of windows lit from within, as the reference point for his work. It is the selection and editing of these photos that ultimately gives the paintings their emotional punch. Working with a grid technique, he painstakingly maps out his oil paintings square by square, painting with small, specially ordered brushes. By contrast, his watercolours have a light, candid, unselfconscious touch.
He intuitively channels art from his parents’ generation, like Michael Snow’s famous series of metal cutouts entitled “Walking Woman,” in his exploration of a silhouetted figure he calls the “90’s Man.” In his recent mural of a solitary cloud at the corner of Queen and Simcoe Streets, funded by the City of Peterborough Public Art Program in conjunction with the Downtown Business Improvement Association (DBIA), you can see the influence of Latvian-American painter Vija Celmins’ true-to-life canvases of ocean surfaces and starry skies. Graffiti also figures in his streetwise narrative.
Text informs the show in a hashtag style poem by his mother:
to our twonights
And an accompanying essay by Bierk’s friend Derek McCormack, whose latest novel was published by Semiotext(e), the publisher of the likes of Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus, is hung beside Bierk’s self-portrait of himself at 13 and shares Bierk’s memories of alienation:
Peterborough is a cruel place.
I fled it before finishing high school. I didn’t move that far away – I went to Toronto and started writing. I started writing about Peterborough.
Forerunners continues at Artspace until November 25 (more info).
Photo credits: Alex Bierk, used with permission.