“Anything that could be imagined could be created.”
by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor
Don Bergland is currently an Associate Professor of Art Education at the University of Victoria and has been an active exhibiting artist for over fifty years. During that time, he has worked through a variety of professional media, from oil on canvas to his current studio use of digital tools and techniques. He maintains an active international exhibiting career and has featured his artwork in over 160 major exhibitions throughout the world.
Don Bergland, whose digital paintings are featured in May’s issue, opens his online portfolio with Comte de Lautréamont’s now famous epitaph, widely adopted by the first surrealist artists: “As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” Bergland’s digital creations—rife with hybrid creatures, eery childlike figures, a mash-up of the whimsical and grotesque—force the viewer to create a narrative of strange, disparate elements. The resulting images amuse and disturb, ultimately drawing the viewer into a new realm of possibility and learning.
Although his body of work since the ’90s is entirely composed of digitally produced images, Bergland began his career as a painter, working mainly in acrylics. Despite his facilities with the medium, he was slowly becoming frustrated with what he felt was the “fixed nature of the painted surface.” “Although I had an elaborate system of overlays, washes, and masking procedures to achieve the visual effects I wanted,” he explained, “I was always unhappy….In my system, once the paint was applied to the canvas, it was extremely difficult to go back and alter areas, either in terms of color or composition.”
The solution to Bergland’s growing discomfort with painting arrived in the form of a class in digital technology and graphics during his doctoral program at the University of British Columbia. Bergland found that the digital technology allowed him the flexibility to adjust his creations through the entire composition process. In addition to the added freedoms which the digital tools provided, the new medium shed light on his interest in visual composition.
He began to treat the digital workspace as a 3D theater—with a stage, actors, and props. Digital tools allowed him to explore each set and scene before choosing the right angle to take a still shot. This attention to composition soon became a central tenant of his work:
For me, the essence of the art experience lies in the process of composition, of arranging things in space, of inventing the relationships between objects and forms. So it has been the manipulation of form in space rather than the technique of paint application that has primarily interested me. In this sense, I’ve always thought about image construction as drama, narrative, story telling, or theatre.”
While the startling interactions in Bergland’s paintings showcase the artist’s vast creativity, they are the result of a highly formulaic process, dubbed “The Studio Pipeline.” Refined over years of artistic production, Bergland’s Studio Pipeline functions similarly to a poetic form, where strict procedures ultimately push the artist to new realms of imagination:
My current studio processes replicate the mechanics of many traditional environments, but add many levels of complexity, all of which demand that I take on the roles of inventor, photographer, set designer, director, scriptwriter, painter, stagehand, 3D composer, and graphic artist. I use a personally customized routine for creating each of my images. Aside from rough sketches I may make on paper during the process of creating an artwork, all my processes are digital and occur through a set of 4 areas:
A, 3D Models Library: I use actual 3D models for my sets, actors, and objects. I have a huge inventory of models which I store in a digital library. I build these myself in Area B, or purchase them as Royalty-Free models from content developers.
B, 3D Construction Program: This is a software program (Hexagon, Maya). Here I construct new 3D models or alter and transform existing models.
C, 3D Assembly Program: This is a software program (Smith-Micro Poser). This is the basic stage arena where I construct the set, and then place the models on it and then arrange and assemble them as actors and objects that will comprise the final image.
D, 2D Graphics Program: This is a software program (Adobe Photoshop) which serves several functions. It serves to create any 2D images needed, such as texture maps which I use for the surfaces of my models. It is also the second stage of the image, where painting, cutting, trimming, shadows, layers, and overlays are added.”
In each piece, Bergland hopes to give his viewer pause: “My work aims to unsettle the preconceptions of the viewer. I like setting up situations where the understanding misses what it expects, where the understanding encounters what it can’t comprehend.” Similar to the strict procedures in the Studio Pipeline, Bergland develops his hybrid actors and puzzling combinations through a series of conceptual and digital manipulations: dividing a familiar form into several components, and re-combining the parts into an image that is both legible and eerily off.
Despite the surreal universe constructed in his work, Bergland is especially curious about the consequences and emotional impact of human action. While previous works addressed political and social realities, his current work focuses on a more introspective theme: angst. Prevalent in his earlier influences in Dadaism, Existentialism, and Absurdism, Bergland writes, he likes to explore his own anxieties “over aging, death, salvation, oblivion, and use my characters to give these voice through through their performances in the theatrical sets I construct.”
With so much examination of mortality in his art, it is perhaps a bit surprising that many of Bergland’s pieces are populated by children (childlike hybrids). However, when Bergland portrayed adult characters, they seemed too jaded, too experienced in their odd surroundings. His childlike characters, similar to Bergland’s ideal viewer, could still be surprised by their surroundings without rejecting them: “They exuded a sense of wonder and innocence long forgotten by adults. They seemed to have no expectations of the situations in which they found themselves.”
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