Given the level of skilled technique we so often encounter today, it’s not all that unusual to learn that what appeared to be a photograph is actually a painting. The only reason this took until now is that for centuries the masters didn’t have photos to mimic, and once they had the opportunity, they spent years deliberately avoiding it: making sure their brushwork looked nothing like their newly-created nemesis. All the same, a print ought to look a good deal like the plate it was printed from, so no one—starting with this writer—should be embarrassed by having taken the remarkable graphic images of Paul Vincent Bernard for prints. To be sure, these images start out on the path to becoming what would be remarkable prints, but at a crucial moment, the artist alters their fates, so they become something else. Instead of leading to numbered copies, they become unique, and something almost unbelievable to boot.
Bernard calls it “drypoint,” which is also what a printmaker would call the business of scribing grooves into a plate (or matrix) in order to hold the ink in an image that will be transferred to a sheet of paper. Like some of them, he uses a Dremel electric carving tool to cut the lines that we will see on his paintings, followed by application of one or another sequence of colored glazes. Instead of then printing it, however, this becomes the actual work we see in the gallery: a thin sheet of metal, carved and painted. The control, the patience, and the sheer stamina required to cut, for example, the countless concentric circles in “Sunstorm,” staggers the imagination. These lines, so close to perfectly laid out, deviate from perfection just enough to generate palpable patterns of density that bring it to life. But difficulty, while a valid measure, is never alone in making art powerful. In Bernard’s case, it’s the combination of the artist’s sense of proportion and versatile handling of color. These are traditional qualities, and measures, of fine art.
The original Impressionists are spoken of as painters of trains, ships, cities, gardens: what was, for them, modern life. For many years, Bernard captured what might be thought of as “Impressionism of earth,” suggesting cross-sections of massive rock outcroppings. Since stone is opaque, those recollections were less optical and more tactile — fault lines articulating masses that were felt in the viewer’s body. He still does this, in the horizontal layers of “Beneath the Castle” and the fault lines of “Tremblings.” But over the years, his focus has emerged from the earth to find additional, equally strong ways of conceiving nature more suited to visual memory. There’s no reason not to imagine his journey for ourselves as he discovers bare trees in “Late November” and “Winter Conversation,” and stone walls in “Turro Wall” and “Osaka Fortress.” The stone of “Granite Solitaire” becomes the harbinger of rivers and valleys yet to come.
Human works imply human motives. Walls and fortresses imply a desire for protection, even more so in “Before the Flood,” which with its tall towers also invokes the hubris of challenging nature. More vulnerable towers, dense with reinforcement, appear in “Transmission,” while the fence in “Borderland” invokes the human tendency to create perimeters: to define, divide, confine, and prohibit.
Perhaps the most unexpected, maybe the most welcome images are the self-referential figures. The “Driveway Shadow” also falls on the earth in “Walking West” and both record personal, fundamental, harmless, yet compelling involvement with the natural world. Bernard often suggests the unseen, and “Partial Eclipse,” by invoking the absent sun and moon, extends thought to the universe beyond. Where this leads the artist is summed up in a virtual atlas of maps. Among them are “Antelope,” an ambiguous island-become-mountain through human impact; the elevation of a headland against base textures in “Promontory;” and “Fremont,” which swims like a fish through a pointillist lake. With the arrival at “Rozel,” viewers may be delighted to seek, and find, Spiral Jetty. Maps have become the apotheosis of Bernard’s drypoint technique: the living line contrasting with dancing textures to locate and tell the story of place.
There’s no reason why this progress should stop with current narratives or, for that matter, recent events. Indeed, the images at Phillips transcend time and location which, though implied, are not meant to limit them to any here or now. There’s a new playfulness in the shadows cast by the unseen figures in “Garage Band,” jamming in their cone of limelight. The central element in the complex “Fabrication in Blue” refuses to reveal whether it’s a dome or an opening from a dark place into the light. Examining the ambiguous form in “Midnight Blue” or returning to the chiseled lines of “Sunstorm” may spark a realization: perhaps that Paul Vincent Bernard’s true subject has always been defiant presence in the face of absence. That would explain the use of so binary a medium. Here’s a mark. There is none. From such fundamentals comes knowledge of our very existence.
Paul Vincent Bernard, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through Feb. 10.