Paul Bernhardt : Press

"Industrial Strength"
Source: National Post
Published: 08/27/2010
Author: Leah Sandals

Summer vacation spots such as the Canadian Rockies are typically picture-postcard in their beauty. But Ontario-raised, Alberta-based painter Paul Bernhardt is drawn to places that will never end up in a tourism brochure -- city power stations and rural oil fields for instance. Now, with his art showing at two Edmonton galleries (including the Alberta Biennial), Bernhardt talks to Leah Sandals about robots, road trips and remembering Darth Vader.

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Q You used to do heavy, grey, industrial paintings using raw oil and tar on steel. Why the shift to bright colours on canvas?

A Sometimes you just get to a point where it seems like you're putting yourself in a corner. It was really early on in my career when I started painting with oil and tar, and there were still a lot of things I wanted to explore in terms of paint and colour. But the newer paintings still speak to something similar. They're very bright, but they're also very synthetic and artificial.

Q You sketched some of your new paintings in Alberta oil fields. Have you shifted from painting with raw oil to looking more at oil's origins?

A At first, having just moved to Alberta, I was kind of interested in the oil industry. For instance, jack pumps -- those pumps that look like dippy-bird toys -- are fascinating to me. They're essentially robots. Not only do they pump autonomously, but they stop by themselves, too. They have a quota for the year, and the minute that amount is out, a pump freezes until the following year. So I spent a couple of days sketching those near Lloydminster.

But those aren't the only kinds of sites I'm interested in. There's also things in my paintings like satellite dishes and power stations and airports--places that are more part of our everyday experience. So a bunch of things coalesce in the sites I choose. There's usually some kind of mechanical structure I find visually intriguing, but also something that speaks about the way we live right now, when using machines is such a large part of our lives.

Q Usually artists set up easels in front of beautiful scenery. Do you really sketch for hours in these grimier places, or do you just take quick photos for future reference?

A I sketch onsite; I seldom take photos. I just set up a little camping chair and bring water and a sketchbook. So these paintings are all based on places that I'm able to visit and experience. I may spend three or four hours in the city somewhere, or two days elsewhere. Other aspects of that experience can also end up in the painting, like the conversations I had with the guy who managed the site in Lloydminster, or songs that were in my head.

Q So even though you're fascinated by machines, you've kind of rejected using any -- such as cameras -- in your own process?

A Yes, it's an analog way of working. I don't know if it will be that way forever, but there's something that's interesting to me about personal experience.

Q What's next for you?

A Well, I actually do want to work with photographs and the Internet in the future. But again, it's always a matter of stumbling across things that make you go "Wow." For me, that means there's always a machine element in it -- though it may go in a slightly different direction.

Currently, I'm really interested in the giant "touchdown Jesus" sculpture in Ohio. When it was struck by lightning, the fibreglass shell burnt away, so all that's left is a huge metal skeleton.

I've also been looking at pictures from a 1950s psychology experiment on nature vs. nurture. Scientists built these really archaic-looking surrogate mothers for young monkeys to interact with. It was a very cruel experiment, and the surrogates in these pictures seem very robotic, very mechanical, very cold.

I guess I've always been interested in that aspect of things. As a kid, I was really into Star Wars-- and I was really into Darth Vader, not the good guys. Well, I cheer for the good guys in real life...but they aren't always what fascinate me.

- Paul Bernhardt's paintings are on view at Harcourt House (harcourthouse. ab. ca) and the Art Gallery of Alberta (youraga. ca) until tomorrow.