Canadian, born United States
(Appleton, Minnesota, 1944 - 2002)
Historical works of art made by European old masters speak to the contemporary viewer with many voices. Taken away from the context of their own era, they may seem relics or oddities to some; for others they are timeless, capable of transporting the modern individual into the lost world of history. For artist David Bierk, paintings of the past had a specific resonance within contemporary culture, and he quoted historical images in his own work to address the larger human condition in the present day. “By rendering Old Master art as a quotation,” writes Donald Kuspit, “Bierk strips it of its historical husk, exposing the kernel of eternal meaning that gives it credibility.” (1)
It may seem reasonable to question the relevance of such images in our modern world. Why would the artist “repaint” the work of an old master? For Bierk, the answer lay in making art-historical monuments play new roles, judged by twentieth-century criteria for beauty and intellectual relevance. It was his practice to mount his paintings into surfaces made of contemporary industrial materials such as steel and concrete, both to isolate them from their original presentation (in a church or palace, for example), and to create a foil for the richness of their history. Bierk’s paintings are not copies so much as reprised originals of an entirely different character. With vigorous brushwork and layers of glaze, he intensified the images and gave them a new existence.
Bierk sometimes used multiple images from different eras in the same painting, and superimposed words to anchor the images within a verbal construct. By juxtaposing these elements, he drew the viewer’s attention to the melancholy of loss and our own poverty of cultural values. In Bierk’s view, visual culture of the twentieth century was debased by a plethora of popular imagery that was repetitive and without distinction. He revitalized works that have functioned as icons of art history through a reinterpretation that focuses on their timelessness.
(1) David Bierk, essay by Donald Kuspit (Montgomery: The Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 2000), p. 10.
American Paintings from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, 2006, cat. no. 103, p. 238.