Alex Bierk has both feet firmly planted in the present because he has two feet rooted in the past. His past was a difficult one: an accomplished family with six siblings to emulate, and fail to measure up to; the death of both parents four years apart; and a lengthy descent into various addictions followed by a nine-month-long rehabilitation. Throughout that period, even at rock bottom when he was living in a flophouse apartment in an alleyway off Spadina Street, “with garbage bags taped over the windows and doing every hard drug you could imagine,” one idea never went away: “In my own mind I was an artist. It was my identity. It was the only thing I was ever good at and it was the only thing that came naturally to me.”
Today that natural ability is touching on virtuosity. The Peterborough-based artist makes oil-on-linen paintings that are startlingly exact at the optical level and compelling in their emotional intensity. By being so convincingly what they are, they become something additional. Two of his most recent paintings are portraits of his wife and they embody this other dimension. In the first one she is walking along a green-tiled subway wall; in the second she is reading a book, her hair casually unpinned, and wearing a nondescript sports jersey. Both portraits are produced through a painstaking method that involves grids and masking tape and then painting, “like you would read a book, top to bottom, left to right,” Bierk says.
All his paintings start from a photographic source. He takes a hundred photographs a day, mostly with his cellphone and occasionally with a high-quality point-and-shoot camera. He identifies with Robert Bechtle’s description of his camera as a sketchbook. By that measure, Bierk’s is a library. He has 300,000 images stored in his computer, an image bank from which he can make endless withdrawals. Any tentative moments that involve figuring out whether an image will work and what does the image mean are worked out at the photography stage. He says, “I’m so locked into the process that there is no diversion from the photograph. There are some painterly things that happen in translating the source to the linen, but for the most part the structure is set up. Once I start, I’m locked in and I’ve never not finished a painting.”
The images for the two recent portraits were taken in 2011, and their use today reveals something about his motive. “I really wanted to tap into our former selves and look back on a time that was lovely,” Bierk says. “I was taking stock of these light-speed years since we’ve had kids and moved and owned a house, and looking at how free and young we were back then.” It is revealing that he calls the first painting You and me in the subway station. He is absent from the photo but present in the naming of the work. In Bierk’s mind it is a double portrait. Amanda Reading is more singular; the painting is an icon of secular devotion. He says that his wife is a reluctant subject and always holds her hand in front of her face, so there are few photographs from which to choose. Within that limited selection he wanted an image that honoured her beauty and he found one. Amanda Reading is in the category of a pair of superb paintings by Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1977, and Reader, 1994, both of which depict a woman absorbed in her own world. Bierk’s painting suggests a similar emotional privacy, but in addition to being a painting, it is equally a painting about a woman he adores.
Both portraits are connected to the larger process of recovery that is at the centre of his life and art—recovery of his memory of growing up and recovery from addiction. In his current circumstances the two narratives intersect. He is an advocate for opioid awareness in Peterborough and is using the content of his art and how it is made as a way of extending that advocacy and developing a sense of community. He says, “Recovery is a huge part of my life, and one of the ways I stay clean and sober is through intensive work with other alcoholics and addicts. What that actually looks like is that I have this big table in my studio and guys will come in and we’ll talk about our lives together as I paint.” Bierk is in his studio eight hours a day, five days a week, and his studio door is always open: “Painting is such a lonely pursuit that I need to be around people. I need that energy. There is no schedule, but people are there all the time.” Bierk sees the portraits of Amanda as being part of a progression in which his advocacy and his painting are one and the same thing: “I’m always using subject matter from my immediate surroundings. Because the work is specifically about addiction and living in a small town, I think the work exists together.”❚