Alex Bierk’s paintings are dually photo realistic and figuratively expressionistic. They are an archive both of is own personal experiences, memories, and observed histories within the smalltown urban landscapes and environments that surround him. Though sourced from photographs he himself has taken, his paintings have a timeless quality to them, transcending a fixed moment and instead compressing a history of memories and moments into a single image. Bierk’s most recent body of work deals with his hometown and current residence Petersborough, ON, exploring his own experiences with addiction and loss, transformative histories and experiences of place, archiving life and memories in this small town, and growing from childhood to fatherhood within its context.
Alex Bierk was born and raised in Peterborough, ON, where he currently lives and works today with his wife and three children. Bierk has presented works internationally, with a recent solo show “Memory, Memory, Memory” at Mulherin Gallery New York in Summer 2017. Bierk was a 2013 finalist for the Kingston Prize and has received grants from both the Toronto and Ontario Arts Councils, and the Canada Council for the Arts. Bierk’s work has been exhibited in numerous group and solo exhibitions as well as multiple art fairs, including Art Toronto, Scope (Miami), Papier 14 (Montreal), and Art Southampton. Bierk recently self-published a book of watercolors in collaboration with Jackson Creek Press.
What is your background in art? How did you begin making art and how your work has developed into your current practice today?
My dad was an artist and I grew up hanging around his studio and working there and being a part of whatever was going on. Just as a mechanics kid might grow up understanding how to fix cars, I was raised in a family where our father was an artist and that’s what we knew growing up. We were always involved; me and my brothers and our friends – in elementary school I remember we posed as source material for this massive figurative painting, and one summer my twin brother and I got paid to clear coat hundreds of books, coat after coat, which my dad ended up painting on. We grew up doing odd jobs like that -- stretching canvas, priming canvas, sanding frames, sweeping up, running errands, going to openings, being dragged to museums – (which I used to hate).
I got kicked out of high school, so my dad paid me by the hour to come into his studio and paint partly to keep me out of trouble and partly because I think he saw it as something I was good at. I’m so thankful for that experience. I moved to Toronto when I was 19 at the same time as my dad got sick and ended up dying, and I started on a pretty destructive path where I wasn’t really painting.
When I got sober in 2006, I entered back into the art world and I got a job selling art materials. I then ended up working as an artist assistant and rented out a studio on Niagara street in Toronto, and I started to focus again on painting and take it seriously.
What were your earlier works focused on? What was the imagery and subject matter?
The period I mentioned where my dad was teaching me to paint, he was working on these large-scale pieces of appropriated imagery from fashion ads. I can remember him giving me $20 to go buy magazines at the corner store to bring to back to the studio. We picked out black and white images from those magazines and then he would tell me to go paint them using a grid. There was no connection to the subject matter it was more about learning how to paint and how to use the grid technique. We drew the grid right on the magazine page. He was never hovering over me, but I was next to him painting. That’s a really beautiful memory for me. This was in the late 90’s
At my Niagara studio, I had been making portraits from found source material.
I remember working for Kim Dorland and he made these paintings from a dream his wife had called “Lori Coming Apart”. It was really interesting to me to make a painting from a story of a dream like that, and I started to think about what I wanted to paint differently. The only way I knew how to work was from a source image, so I began to reframe and edit these photos I had found that my twin brother Jeff had taken. Images of us as teenagers, our friends, using drugs, our house we grew up in, snapshots. Both my parents had passed away in a short period of each other, and these images from my past represented this time of loss, addiction, growing up and being sober. The work was a way of looking at these themes and its cultural context in the recent and widespread OxyContin epidemic that was taking place, and that I had survived. I remember the two images that I started with on that series, which were very different than anything I had painted before. One was a view of the street that I had grown up on at night, and the other, the house I had grown up in, from the perspective of the outside looking in, my bedroom window with a night sky in the background.
Can you talk about how you source and choose images?
I work from my own photos. I use my phone mostly but I have a point and shoot camera too. My biggest issue is remembering what I want to paint from all the source material I accumulate. I take so many photos and it’s a big issue in my studio to store them without losing track. I have a black and white printer, so when there’s an image that I’m drawn to, I’ll print it out and pin it up on my studio wall so I don’t forget about it. Also, so I can think about the imagery as I’m in my studio every day and visually construct ideas for bodies of work that I want to make.
There are common images in your works like urban landscapes and spaces, and also themes of nostalgia, memory, abandonment, and history. How are you thinking about and selecting imagery?
I think I make earnest work and I never really search out very deeply imagery on a specific theme – I just use what’s in front of me. One of my favorite painters, Robert Bechtle, describes his camera as his sketchbook, and I totally relate to that. The way that I take photos is definitely an intuitive part of my process, especially when compared to the highly structured way that I paint.
Thematically the work examines past and future identities, and over the past few years has been about my experience with addiction and loss, being a new father, and archiving my experience in small town Ontario – where I grew up and have moved back with my family. I am interested in making work that directly engages with the stories of my specific region. I love the idea of my work being read as an archive. I’m really inspired by the precisionist painters, like Charles Sheeler and George Ault, and how their work acts as an archive of the time. I see examples of this in my hometown, it’s cool, and in this digital age it feels like a lost perspective to capture a specific place or moment through a painting.
Your works also have an absence of the figure, can you talk about this choice?
Maybe as a backlash to my days of doing portraits? Vija Celmins talks about the psychic weight of a piece, and the space a small piece can hold beyond itself, or something like that – she says it better. I think although there is an absence of the figure directly, maybe myself taking the picture and laboring over the painting, or the perspective that viewer enacts, creates the presence of the figure, somehow still? I don’t know, it always surprises me when people say this about my work; I feel there is very much a personal presence in everything I paint.
Thinking about the photorealism of your works, what is your process of translation working from the original photo and developing the painting?
I edit whatever I use as a source, and size it the same as what I’m painting it on, then in Photoshop I grid it out using this ½” grid my wife Amanda made for me back in the day. I get it printed out cheap, then from the source image, I paint it out square by square, half an inch at a time top to bottom, left to right.
How have you developed materially? You paint with ink, gouache, oil, and acrylic -- what is your material process within your work?
I learned to paint with oil, that’s my go-to. When we had our first kid we went to my grandmas and I brought a bunch of paper and ink and gouache and watercolour, and spread out on her kitchen table and made work. It’s much looser than the way I paint and I can also explore imagery way faster, be more mobile, work at home, etc.
The watercolours help inform my paintings, even though they’re not really studies, I’m able to get through a range of imagery and not be as invested in one image as when I’m painting.
I’m always curious about materials. With my latest body of work, I’ve added structural elements, and I’m working on a big silkscreen right now. BAD FAITH, at Art Toronto incorporated found men’s room stall doors that had been scrawled into, over time, with messages and graffiti.
I have a few other ideas that are along similar lines, shifting my way of doing things and adding these structural elements. I’ve done some paintings with rust, and I’ve also made some paintings with green oxidized copper. All of these different, freer ways of working come from the rigidity of the highly labor intensive stuff that I do, (I think).
How are you approaching sourcing the materials for these structural pieces?
I bought the stall doors for $2 in a local auction for a bar that was closing down. I had to bring a pry bar and remove them myself. The bar was called the Pig’s Ear, its claim to fame is that Hank Williams got fall down drunk there and couldn’t make it onstage for a show he had in town.
I’m using the found material both as part of the actual piece, and as a way of starting to think about color in my work. I love the beautiful hardware store green of those stall doors, I love the rust color that I see in my neighborhood, intertwined with old paint, or the colours in the landscape from some of the photos I take. If I can incorporate some of these things into a painting I will. It’s an evolution of my process. I’m not taking a photograph of the door with the graffiti on it, I’m taking the actual door and using it.
How do you approach color?
I’m just evolving. I never made a decision to be a painter who only paints in black and white, but it was just the way that I learned to do things. I made some monochromatic watercolours using color this summer and have eased into it with my oil paintings. It’s not too different from black and white; I’m just painting what I see, only with a larger palette.
How are you approaching scale?
I do play a little bit with scale, but mainly stick to making smaller work and don’t feel insecure about it. I’m so tired of everyone telling me to go big…but, I do have a huge 30 x 40 inch image ready to go – that’s a pretty ambitious size for me, and the piece is highly detailed. I know what scale works for me. I kind of just do what I want and trust my gut and let the source image determine the size of the painting.
How do you approach incorporating personal themes and subjects into your work?
I want to make work that is honest and real, not just paint random stuff. Photorealism is always critiqued for its lack of depth and weight in its subject matter, and I want to think as much about what I’m painting as how I paint it.
I’m a self-taught artist in a way; I didn’t graduate high school, I didn’t go to art school. Maybe I’m more versed at communicating in this visual way about the things that matter to me, about what I’m going through and thinking, my memories, life, beauty, issues in the communities I’m involved in, things I feel and see. I just relate those experiences and my experiences visually, and work in a meaningful way.
What’s the most frustrating thing about making work, or what is a challenge that you’re currently working through?
Painting in this time consuming labor intensive way that I do, to stay balanced and live up to all my other responsibilities can be tough. I had one painting last year that took me 5 months to finish, and I pushed at it everyday. I have three children, and we live month to month. I teach one night a week at the local art school here. It’s a hustle for everyone, not just me; I am very fortunate to be able to do what I do.
What or who is influencing you right now?
I’m influenced by my daily life and issues that are important to me that I can somehow touch upon in my work. I’m sort of also having this conversation with my dad a little in terms of working with these structural elements and color as we’ve talked about. Not in a sentimental way either, but as a teacher, someone who taught me how to paint. That’s been the most immediate influence I’d say. But I’m very influenced by what I see around me everyday. The experiences around me trickle into the photography which trickles into the painting or the watercolor, which I then think about or write about, or make a work about.