Broken Race
Kris Bergthorson
February 14 — March 4, 1989

Brochure published with text by Alan Wood

Vancouver has the most important element needed in the make-up of any progressive art scene – that is the presence of a determined group of confident, hard-working young artists with talent and vision who have learned how to survive in the city. They do an assortment of jobs, work or live in studios where they are often harassed by city bureaucracy. The object of their strategies is to make their art. It is, therefore, not surprising that their work can often be tough, irreverent and usually hard to sell. These hard-core urban survivors sink most of the money they make back into what they so passionately believe in – their art. I admire them individually and collectively and am gladdened, fortified and encouraged, in my own efforts, by their presence.

Kris Bergthorson is one of these artists, but his work has, in addition, a curiously poetic and ethereal quality. This installation is made up of four fresco-like panels, each one five feet by six feet. First of all plaster of paris is poured into a plywood and lumber mould and water colour paint is applied to the wet plaster surface. The painted slab is then cracked and broken, then re-assembled on new backing, fixed and framed with steel. Bergthorson has given much though to how the four panels will be installed in the gallery space. The central wall holds two panels and each of the two flanking walls hold one panel each. The work will be specifically lit in a subdued environment. The overall effect will be similar to that of approaching an altar or icon in a religious sanctuary. The two central panels are of two figures portrayed from the waist up to just under the nose. The flanking side panels are each painted with a huge simple curved vessel or urn. The figures are obviously and literally male. The two vessels are symbols for the female.

The males figures are covered with tattoos. The female/vessel shapes have elaborate pattern and decoration. The overall colour of all the panels is merely tinted and faded, like very old photographs. The skin of the male bodies is pale, almost bloodless, the urns have a blue translucence or glow. The cracked, fragmentary and re-assembled quality of the surfaces adds to the antique allusion.

The tattoos on the male bodies are based on research that Bergthorson has made on French prison tattoos from the turn of the century, which often illustrate, almost in code, the amount of time served by the convict and the nature of his crimes. These images are combined with tattoos of Bergthoson’s own invention which are somewhat autobiographical. All of these tattoos, therefore, relate to significant information about both the artist and his research subjects. The illusion of the tattoo or graffiti on the body is produced by the impregnation of colour into the plaster surface. A real tattoo is the impregnation of ink into flesh. Real tattoos can only be removed from the body by mutilation but can be easily (and painlessly) removed from the plaster surface by sanding and scarping. The patterns on the urns are not aggressive. They resemble the decorations on Wedgwood pottery or walls of ancient Greece. These vessels also emanate a powerful inner light.

The combined effect of the four juxtaposed panels is to symbolize the fragility of human life. The inside of a person being as vulnerable and fragile as the outside. We are faced with a metaphor for life and a sense of a spiritual search combined with the discovery of an artistic persona.

This work is successful in its honesty and the insight it gives us into Kris Bergthoson’s creative motives and his resolve to make his art poignant and thoughtfully personal through an extraordinary fusion of method and poetry.

-Alan Wood
Vancouver January 1989

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