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Artist of the Week: Alain Bertrand

September 4, 2011

Times Square by Alain Bertrand, oil on canvas, 35” x 46” [89 x 117cm]

Alain Bertrand has done something unique with his art, and I believe he is the first artist to create art with his particular innovation.  Bertrand makes Super-realist paintings to portray imagined reality, but the works are carefully structured and the viewer is not alerted to the fabricated nature of the scenes unless there is close scrutiny.  When I was first looking at the paintings, I had an impression is that the outdoor scenes are taken from points of time in the past, maybe from the 1960s.  Then it started to dawn on me that there were idiosyncratic elements in the scenes portrayed.  The amalgamation of iconic mass cultural elements and overall composition was perfect.  A little too perfect. Something was strange with these beautifully executed works, but I was not sure what.  I started to question apparent anachronisms and regional disparities. I then asked the gallerists if the artist was using Photoshop to compose his scenes.  He was not but the gallerist told me the paintings were compositions of different things, that the artist owned many of the classic cars featured in the painting.  That is when I hit upon the true nature of the paintings. 

Alain Bertrand is making art by using all of the tools of a Super-realist painter to break all the conventions of Super-realism.  Audrey Flack’s earlier works were still life paintings elaborately assembled from objects in her possession.  Chuck Close did large scale portraits of people he knew.  The convention of Super-realism is for the painting to act as a camera would, capturing an image of reality and providing what Charles Sanders Peirce would have called the indexical quality of the image: the idea that the image was present with a real situation and is a recording of it.  Super-realist art traditionally offer a moment in real time as it would have been captured by a camera or even superior to a camera’s abilities in representation.  Alain Bertrand is making reality malleable through paint; instead of using Super-realism to make paint be a photograph and the painter a photographer, he is spinning his own fabulous stories.  Each work is an autobiographical collage of cultural elements the artist likes, enjoys or personally owns.  People see the works and think they are nostalgic snapshots from the past; each painting is a lie they believe. 

I noticed viewers responding well to the works, but they were pulled in by and lauding a particular element they responded to emotionally.  A man would particularly like and antique car, others would point out a vintage movie poster they were fond of.  The general response before moving on was “Oh, how nice.  These paintings are realistic.”  I do not think the majority of viewers ever realized that they were buying into a purely synthetic reality, offered to them with too many familiar things to be questioned as fantasy.

Revenge of the Creature by Alain Bertrand, oil on canvas, 36”x 51” [91 x 130cm]

If anything, the works have an element of globalism, in that pop icons, mass produced items, media, advertising and visual culture is fluid across borders and has been so for decades, particularly so in Western culture.  American mass culture has wandered out across the earth and come to rest in many places.  You could have endless debates about whether certain comedians, actors and musicians are American, Canadian or British because their careers have readily and fluidly spanned all three nations.  I have a friend who only likes a certain era of French cinema.  I expect that cultural fluidity and artistic fusions will only grow and create new permutations of art, as our current century is offering an unprecedented level of inter-connectivity.   

Easy Rider by Alain Bertrand, oil on canvas,  38” x 51” [97 x 130 cm]

I was fortunate enough to see these works on exhibition in Chicago.  Catto Gallery in London is features shows of Alain Bertrand paintings, and the artist has a portfolio website here.

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