“Can you believe it’s not a photograph!?” Toronto artist Charles Bierk has garnered media attention for his strikingly realistic portraiture before. Now, in his show What Was Not Lost at Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Bierk debuts a new approach to portraiture and further invests his knack for life-like painting into capturing human depth.
From a large black and white canvas, a young man peers directly at us. The surface minutia of his face is expanded beyond a comfortable size. The painting is Jalil by Charles Bierk, and the sitter is the artist’s friend. I am accessing the painting online in a filmed walkthrough of the exhibition. The camera continues along the wall where we meet the similarly rendered Amika and Richard. Each painting pulls viewers into a haunting intimacy with the person depicted.
Charles Bierk, Jalil, 2020, oil on canvas, 40 x 36 in.
Bierk has made a successful practice of documenting his peers – young creatives in Toronto. Like Jalil, Amika and Richard, his body of work consists mainly of large scale, photorealistic, black and white portraiture. “Charles’ paintings transfix the viewer not merely due to his technical facility or their often massive scale but, above all, by virtue of their inherent humanity” says Daniel Strong, Associate Director and Curator at Grinnell College Museum of Art.
What Was Not Lost represents a partial deviation from this work, in form though not in concept. For the first time, alongside his signature portraits, the show contains multi-paneled paintings of objects which Bierk has been developing since 2017.
Charles Bierk, What Was Not Lost, 2019, oil on canvas, 36 x 84 in.
In an interview with Metivier Gallery Bierk explains that the titular work “What Was Not Lost… contains my own keepsakes…. I purposefully chose objects that represent a person, place or time that I was missing in that moment. Together, the painting is this sort of altar upon which I place the most sentimental things I have carried with me.”
After his own objects, Bierk returned to his circle of friends and began painting their selected mementos. In doing so he continues the work of documenting people, but in an approach mediated by their collected objects. In 2019, Bierk painted Katie, and in 2020, in Remembrance #3 he depicts twelve nostalgic, personal objects of her choosing – each one carries a story or a link to a loved one.
Charles Bierk, Remembrance #3, 2020, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 in. (left) and Katie, 2019, oil on canvas, 40 x 36 in. (right)
In conversation with the portraits, these series of emotive objects zero in, similarly, on the humanity of their subjects.
I was once rummaging through a friend’s drawer when a bar of Body Shop soap interrupted my search for the perfect outfit. It was the same hand soap that my mother had bought when I was a kid, and not since. It reminded me of a bygone time. Stories of this transportive sensation are well precedented in art. Bierk’s objects embody Proust’s Madeleine. In explaining the title for the show, he recalls a conversation with his brother, “Casually, he said something about the fact that these objects are the leftovers or the things that were not lost, unlike the people who they once belonged to.” (Nicholas Metivier Gallery Website).
What Was Not Lost is heavy with a sentiment that remains intact online, and even takes on new, thematically relevant significance. This distanced approach to the exhibit is conditioned by the same circumstances which currently separate us from the people in our own lives. We can access traces of them through telecommunications, through images, and now, as Bierk offers, through the objects they have loved and touched and shared with us.
Images are courtesy of Nicholas Metivier Gallery.
*Exhibition information: April 2 – 25, 2020, Nicholas Metivier Gallery, 190 Richmond Street East, Toronto. View it online at https://metiviergallery.com/viewing-room/4-charles-bierk-what-was-not-lost/