Flooding and rebuilding

Process and form rise and converge in the cadenced paintings of Galen Frost Bernard, currently on display at BoBo Gallery in downtown Asheville. Treading the line between abstract and representational art, undulating masses of geometric shape, color and line churn into each other to create the impression of shantytowns built into precipitous environments. 

An Awkward Comparison: Environments falling apart and regenerating.

They are more than depictions of fantastical favelas, however — they hearken a frame of mind as well. "I'm resistant to the landscape thing," says Bernard, "I'm more interested in painting the feeling of a place, rather than an actual place."

Indeed, these are not your typical landscapes; these are other worldly realms for the eye to journey across.

Bernard frequently works on several pieces simultaneously, as his three large "Awkward Comparison" paintings suggest. In them, labyrinths of dwellings and staircases bend around each other, while rivers spill down the canvases. Atmospheric haze lingers above like a shroud.

The more time spent looking, the more the deluge of visual information each painting contains reveals stories. Look closely at "Strong Wind of Potential Remix," for example, and swirling triangular shapes appear as birds or paper debris — as if the place were a glorified wasteland built on the side of a collapsing iceberg.

Bernard says he draws creative inspiration from his hometown in Nelson County, Va., and his connection to the land and people there. "It's a pretty ridiculously special place to grow up," he says, recalling the 150-acre hollow where he lived. "For me, playing in the woods is just as creative as making art."

In August 1969, flash flooding from Hurricane Camille washed away homes in Nelson County, killing more than 150 people. As a result, real estate values plummeted. Many back-to-the-land types — including Bernard's parents — bought up property to establish community living situations. "I had a lot of brothers from other mothers," says Bernard, who was born in a shack at the base of Yellow Priest Mountain – the source of the title to his largest piece in the show: "The (Yellow) Priest."

These ideas of flooding and rebuilding are appropriate metaphors for Bernard's work, which he sometimes refers to as "process paintings." The environments depicted seem to be falling apart and regenerating themselves simultaneously, mirroring Bernard's creative process. "I do a lot of back tracking and referencing of old work," he says.

The (Yellow) Priest: Bernard was born in a shack at the base of Yellow Priest Mountain.

Using oils, Bernard usually begins each piece with vivid applications of color. "A lot of times I start them out so bright and so ugly; it's like I'm wrestling them back to something I can stand," he says.

The artist's creative progression is revealed through layers beneath layers of color swatches and drips. In some, traces of handwriting are smudged into washes of paint, making the text illegible. Details like this add not only textural appeal, but a conceptual element as well. Clearly there is writing there, but the specifics and the relevance of it is up for individual interpretation. 

The five smaller paintings that comprise Bernard's "January Lemonade" series hang side-by-side in the gallery. Their palette is more restrained — lighter values of greys and whites interspersed with washes of sienna. Upon these, animated and energetic lines lend an airy quality to the work. 

Originally, seven canvases were included in the series, but two of them "split off" during the creative process. Heavy smudges of dark grey and black suggest a more tumultuous situation occurring within the two rebel paintings. In "Remains," a fortuitous splat of paint slaps the dwellings behind it, while a wave of warm grey washes over the foreground. In the distance, linear forms are engulfed by smog and disappear into heavenly ether.

Ursula Gullow writes about art for Mountain Xpress and her blog, artseenasheville.blogspot.com.

who: Galen Frost Bernard
what: Paintings
where: BoBo Gallery, 22 N. Lexington Ave.
when: Reception Saturday, June 19 (Starts at 7 p.m. Show up through the month of June. galenfrostbernard.com)

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