Artist Joseph Bernard in Conversation with Mary McNichols
(Note: This is a guest post by curator and art historian Mary McNichols)
Detroit-based artist, Joseph Bernard, once described a toy he had made as a child. Having filled an empty mayonnaise jar with grass, water and fragments of colored glass, he held it up to the sun and, rotating it, watched that which he described as a, “…beautiful tumbling of color and light…”
Bernard has noted that this childhood observation influenced his later work in filmmaking. The experience seems, however, to have been an impetus for the artist’s overarching interest in “… pure abstraction of light, color and movement…,” which permeates a diverse oeuvre spanning painting, film and collage. Bernard’s richly-colored collage paintings, for example, containing objects such as feathers, dried moonflowers and film fragments, resonate with a luminosity made possible with application of many layers of polyurethane.
In the most recent work, photographic images, now digitally conceived and processed through new technologies, figure prominently. And characteristically, Bernard handles them in a manner which evokes an ambiguous combination of synthesis and dislocation incorporating, as he does, overlapping images and multiple exposures often resulting in paradoxical juxtapositions of non-objective and figurative elements.
In the final analysis, Bernard’s work evokes resolution. He deals in opposites—the organic and the geometric, urban signage and dried flowers, “metrical deliberation and freefall abandon.” As he states, “In my work, I bring parts to a whole.”
In May of 2007, after nearly four decades, Joseph Bernard retired from the Fine Arts Department of the College for Creative Studies (CCS). He is currently exploring new approaches to image-making by reassessing his work in photography and film and their connections to collage painting.
Mary McNichols: Your work has evolved from body prints to film to collage painting. Of your work, you’ve stated that there have been, “…many groups and variant themes, themes that have undulated in and out of others like a braid. Some were short-lived while others proved multi-generational.” What are some of these themes?
Joseph Barnard: Well, even before the body prints, there were earlier acrylic/collage paintings on window shades, storm windows, large masonite panels and sheets of glass. All of these combined attached objects and text—often lists of words that could be read up, down or in any order like poems set on ‘shuffle’. These columns would be of words with the same number of letters—four letter words, five letter words, six, seven, etc. I kept notebooks of grouped words. These were applied to the paintings by stencils, which were introduced to me by my father through his job as a freight handler at the Rail Way Express when I was maybe seven years old. His were copper or brass, but I later found the oak tag version in hardware stores.
I’ve gotten away from your question, but briefly have to put the text/stencil/body print issue into historical context. When I came upon the charcoal on paper body prints of Jasper Johns, I read he would cease any imagery that verged on what someone else was doing. I naively thought if I showed him how different our approaches were, we could both continue on our ways. I wrote him in care of Leo Castelli and enclosed several of my body print slides, some with stenciled rows of words. I received back a whole package of Johns’ booklets, postcards and a note from his assistant saying Mr. Johns wishes me well. For someone still in school, I thought, “OK, we’re cool.”
Back to your question about themes—these were variations in approaches to materials (film stock or no, flowers/no flowers, letters/no letters), shifts in paint handling and format changes—none of these things have names, that is, I can’t label thematic variations. I can only look at batches or years of work and conclude well, that stopped happening or, now, this is back.
MM: In about 2000, you re-introduced letters and numbers into paintings which Michelle Perron, Director of Center Galleries, has described as, “subtly-colored Jasper Johns-like meditation on the property of text.” These forms are configured with the same precision—to use your own words in reference to your films—the “metrical deliberation,” of the word groupings in your very early work as you’ve described it. Is this an example of a “multi-generational” theme, of something which “is back?”
JB: You know Mary, yes, I suppose so. It doesn’t come from a conscious, rational place—more like a reopened file of the vocabulary, a version of or from something previous.
MM: In the very early work, you used groupings of whole words; in the more recent work, you’ve used letters and numbers, some of which are fragmented. Is there any conceptual significance to this change?
JB: Absolutely nothing more than that words, letters and numbers have meanings in a given society, but the visual arts, with their potentially broader audience, can carry or cancel those meanings. A word in a language foreign to me will be purely visual. Fragments of letters will be purely visual to everyone; however, I’ve found certain postures and spacings and repetitions may suggest glyphs from another culture.
MM: You’ve referred to, “…issues of music, writing or others’ art” that have “…affected” you, and you’ve just mentioned Jasper Johns. Specifically, which other visual artists, and which musicians and writers have influenced your work and how?
JB: Really so very many. But I don’t necessarily mean their words; look or sound is what I picked up on. Maybe it’s more a case of how someone I admired thought their way through a piece of work or gave clarity to their intentions. That’s what I’ll respond to if I’m going to “dialog” back through a painting. Examples: a couple of my 8′ paintings, Feast of the Gods (Bellini to Brakhage) and Re: Joyce have obvious references in their titles, but certainly don’t have the look of those three artists. A list of those I’ve paid homage to would include John Cage, Joseph Beuys, Garcia Lorca, Scott Hocking, Robert Rauschenberg, Loren Eisley, Charles Bukowski, Van Morrison, Joseph Cornell, Robert Irwin, Paul Sharits, Hollis Frampton and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Beyond these there are hundreds more people, places and things that have and will continue to affect me and influence my work.
MM: You’ve just alluded to James Joyce. A number of artists have produced works which evoke a kind of Joycean stream of consciousness of simultaneous, remembered images. I’m thinking of Delaunay and Chagall. Although Chagall denied any direct influence of literature on his work, his painting, I and the Village, seems to be a visual translation of interwoven memories. You’ve stated that, “Much in art is made from recallings, conscious or otherwise.” Could you elaborate on that statement in reference to your own art? Do memories sometimes constitute the content of your art?
JB: Certainly. Much after the fact, three paintings (Harbinger, Remote Duet, Cloister) were sparked by a visit decades ago to the Cloisters. The late autumn wet stone and dark richness had a part in the look of those three paintings. Another (To Carlo from Cork) came from the remembrance of a pattern on one of my grandmother’s dresses. Yet another (The Gibson) resulted from my experience of the tonality (both sound and color) of a Gibson guitar that I’d grown up with and later left behind in a Chicago pawnshop.
Another, that was in Michelle Perron’s “On Language: Text and Beyond” show at CCS, was Chalk Lessons, which came from a grade-school job I had delivering classroom supplies. The round sticks of pastel-colored chalk came packed with sawdust in a wooden, slide-top box. Opening one of those boxes lit up at least four of the senses!
MM: Addressing your work in both film and collage, it occurs to me that both media, (although quite different in that one is time-based and the other is not) intrinsically lend themselves to the evocation of these kind of simultaneous, remembered images. Is that part of the appeal of these media?
JB: …A case could be made that highly edited/spliced films like Bruce Conner’s or Paul Sharits’ constitute “collage.” That was absolutely the direction taken by Rauschenberg with his Twyla Tharp dance set accompaniment films. Burrows did it with writing. The more I work, the fewer distinctions I see. Film may be referred to as “time-based” because it has a start and finish—but so does conventional collage. The maker begins and ends a process, while even the viewer steps before, then passes the piece. We begin looking and we stop looking—at everything. We are time-based.
The appeal of film and collage to me is fundamental; they feel intuitively right. Sounds dramatic, but I can’t say it more honestly.
MM: Yes, I see your point about the similarities between film and collage in terms of time. As visual culture scholars have noted, in this culture, we’re constantly bombarded by visual images—such as those in television and film—which we perceive almost instantly. They observe that it takes longer to “see” a painting. But, as you say, both are time-based media; maybe, it’s just a matter of degree. Japanese narrative scrolls, the Yamato-e, could, I think, be interpreted as an early form of film.
JB: Oh sure, there’s almost a storyboard sense in the right to left blocking of those classical, spatial paintings. They always brought to mind associations with the Lascaux “narratives” and those of a child’s story-telling drawings—that is, they get talked through as they appear.
MM: I’d like to ask you about the various transitions in your work. You’ve stated that you moved to Brakhage-inspired film in the late 1970s from the earlier body prints when those pieces “became nearly invisible.” That reminds me a bit of Malevich, who concluded that his own (“nearly invisible”) series of paintings, White on White, had signaled the “death” of easel painting. Was your transition to filmmaking the result, in part, of a similar decision or the result of something else?
JB: The shift from body prints to film came about for a couple of reasons. Those final body images (white on white & white on mirror) involved two sheets of 30” x 40” glass against each other which caused a green glow phenomenon of light along the edge of the image, (one of the properties of glass). There was a shroud-like beauty to the tracing—pure optics. An indication of a human form, life-sized, quiet and almost not there. It seemed timely to step away.
Simultaneously, I came into possession of a cheap Super-8 camera. Lens to the sun, I could get prismatic flares of light. Close-ups of surfaces were instant abstractions. Another button let me be god of time… talk about immediate gratification!
I soon got a better camera and editing and projection equipment, but still on the less expensive S-8 level. This addiction was costly; raw stock of every type, lab work, dupe prints, devices for slide shooting, cleaning and an underwater bag. There were even several homemade inventions to improve the process.
Oh, as a footnote–Malevich may have backed into a corner with his earlier proclamation because he continued easel painting for another 17 years. And his prophetic White on White paintings, done in oil, have badly yellowed.
MM: Yes, and Malevich’s proclamation may also have been the result, in part, of all the criticism he was getting from Tatlin and the other Constructivists for not doing “socially useful” art!
JB: Point taken.
MM: Another question, please, about transitions in your work. You’ve indicated that one of the reasons you moved from filmmaking to collage painting was a purely practical one—labs were closing and it was becoming more difficult to process film. I’m aware that film and collage are, in many ways, similar. You have, in fact, stated that, “Following filmmaking, I returned to a related hybrid of sorts: collage painting.” But, was there also, perhaps, an element of wanting to work in a more “permanent” medium after having worked for approximately ten years in a time-based, essentially ephemeral one? Again, I’m alluding to art history; Oskar Schlemmer of the Bauhaus regarded his painting as being a means to translate his work in choreography and theatre to a more “permanent” medium.
JB: No, not really. Painting too, can be transient, (if mistreated like the Harvard Rothkos). One idea I had, back then, was to continue with a projector-less version of film… say a free-hanging tapestry suspended inches from the wall and doubling itself with an echoing colored shadow. I did several of those taping rows of 35mm film into long, rectangular sheets. Also one large, commissioned piece (Lodestone) was made of 2” strips of clear tape with sandwiched petals, feathers, thread, seaweed, film frames and ink. The strips were finally joined into an 8′ x 3′ hanging of clustered “incidentals.”
MM: …Your work has often been described as having a spiritual dimension. Do you think that your work is, in fact, informed by the spiritual on some conscious or subconscious level?
JB: Now that’s a very generously couched question Mary, and I’m at a loss to explain this reaction. I’ve heard similar takes from visitors to the studio, one from a young Asian art student who said, “Oh Joe, these are very religious paintings!” If what’s being said is that there’s something even remotely “transformative” going on, then this atheist is pleased.
I’ve always taken my job to be the switching of roles between the common and the uncommon. When that happens within a work, there is a resonance.
MM: You’ve very often used the moonflower in your work; it appears as a collaged element in many of your paintings, and figures prominently on your website. Is its appeal in its form or in its symbolism?
JB: It’s been with me for a good many years. The flowers are closed during the day and open after dusk, blooming throughout the night. Once dried, the petals become softly faded and, in part, translucent. The vein work has the complexity of a fingerprint. Overall, they’re fragile, beautiful things. I recently used one in a painting, Remembering Lorca.
MM: Would you describe how your recent health issues have impacted your work? I’m thinking about images such as Night Nurse and X-Ray Two-Step.
JB: All the work over the past several years has reduced in size. The last three major operations (heart and both lungs), have diminished my breathing capacity and strength. Knowing this would be the case, prior to my first lobectomy, I made and prepped a lot of smaller panels that could be used during recuperation.
Beyond the change in physicality, my paintings and I don’t dwell on health issues. The two you mention grew from the images on hand and have little to do with personal concerns, other than the fact that I’ve always had a thing for nurses.
Months ago I received an email that has since turned into an ongoing correspondence and friendship. A young lawyer-in-training living in southern Italy wrote me about that painting, Night Nurse, (his favorite among those on my website) with specific questions about the words visible only in the detail image. In both English and Italian, it says, “My illness is the medicine I need.” I explained it was an anonymous quote from an asylum inmate and that I wanted to use it as a doubled veil on the face. It rewards those who look closely.
MM: You’ve stated that you prefer to avoid making political art. Are there any exceptions? I’m thinking, in particular, about several paintings. Gorecki’s Third is, I assume, an allusion to Gorecki’s third symphony, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, one of whose three movements interprets a lament written by an 18-year old woman on the wall of a World War II Gestapo cell. The title of your work, Map for Mekas, references the Lithuanian filmmaker who, while attempting to flee to Vienna to avoid arrest for his anti-Nazi activities, was arrested by German soldiers and subsequently incarcerated in a forced-labor camp. Losing World War III seems to evoke an apocalyptic vision.
JB: There are always exceptions and you’re dead-on right about the last painting. And yes, Gorecki’s Third, is an attempted visualization of that piece of music, but I hadn’t read about his sources. I was going after the stillness of it all and the “breathings” of that lone female voice. I was guided only by the music itself. The Mekas painting, featuring a collaged article from the New York Times, was relating a story he had told me about when he and his brother, Adolphus, set out on a walk from Lithuania to Israel, which was never completed.
The avoidance of making political art comes from the thought that I certainly can’t bring anything to a civilization that hasn’t paid attention to Euripides, Picasso, Kollwitz and Vonnegut—not to mention all their various gods and scriptural thumpings. But then, sometimes I can’t help myself and a piece like Losing World War III, or others—American Torture and Bombing Camels—slip out.
MM: I know that you’ve said that images such as decayed leaves have as much beauty for you as living plants, and I certainly agree. I’m wondering, however, if you occasionally use them for thematic as well as aesthetic purposes, as in, for example, Gorecki’s Third.
JB: Decayed leaves are certainly emblematic of death—skeletal and with the loss of life’s color. When they’ve been used in my paintings, their lace-like openings fill with the ground hue they’re placed on. They have the delicacy and resilience of a spider’s web. Now that’s something I wish I could collage with—but then we’re back to the invisibility factor, full circle and again, spinning off into the unknown.
About Joseph Bernard
Joseph Bernard was schooled as a painter but for ten years, he worked exclusively with small-format (S-8 & 16mm) silent films. These were, for the most part, film-as-film abstractions, non-narrative efforts more closely akin to absolute music. Over a hundred were completed. Issues of color, light and movement became an obsessive new world, a new way to see.
Following film-making, he returned to a related hybrid of sorts; collage painting. He worked with objects such as decals (handmade transparencies of photographic images with the paper removed), hair, seaweed, thread, feathers, petals, onion skins, strips of movie film, tape, stencils and crushed cans. After having bleached, painted, taped onto and scrapped into many of his later films — some chopped into thousands of pieces then rejoined by splices — this process of manipulation/collage became a personal vocabulary for newer paintings.
Bernard’s work often makes oblique references to findings in music, writing, and art. He says that he is “sensually attracted to wet-looking, deeply saturated colors; details clotted with information in decayed and veined foliage, worn passages, underwater stones or aerial views of erosion and tidal flats.” He is “drawn to coded sources like maps, navigational charts, board games, blue prints, x-rays, herbarium displays, musical notation, manuscripts, handmade signage and graphic aspects of cultures” other than his own.
“These pictographic elements trigger evocative sensations of something understood beyond the literal,” says Bernard. “They intimate a commonality, a sharing from another time, other parts, lost thoughts. This is, in a manner, somewhat similar to the method taught at The Actors Studio called ‘sense memory,’ which relies on recall. Jung also dealt with this connection of a favored object misplaced, belongings left in childhood then later remembered in adulthood. Much in art is made from recallings, conscious or otherwise.”
About Mary McNichols
Professor of Art History at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Mary McNichols earned her Ph.D. in art history, women’s studies and higher education administration; her M.A. in art history; and her B.A. in English. In addition to substantial teaching experiences, she has also held several administrative positions at the College, including Associate Academic Dean. Widely published, Dr. McNichols has also presented papers at numerous conferences. Her work has been most recently published in The Photo Review; The International Review of African American Art; Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche; Religion and the Arts. In addition, Dr. McNichols has juried and curated a number of exhibitions.
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