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Reviews / January 23, 2014

Alex Bierk: When Addiction Becomes Art

General Hardware, Toronto January 16 to February 15, 2014

Alex Bierk’s “Pitfalls and Withdrawals” is an exhibition that art-worlders who romanticize the substance abuse accompanying many creative careers would do well to see—and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford could take a look, too. If Miami is (one of the many places) where the art world goes to get high, this show at Toronto’s General Hardware is where it might go to come down.

That’s because Bierk’s exhibition is an attempt to deal explicitly with his own history of substance abuse. As the gallery website states, “Bierk paints to recover memories lost to drugs,” and the work “finds its cultural context in the recent and widespread epidemic of OxyContin abuse in Ontario.”

Often based on photographs taken during Bierk’s period of addiction, the artist’s realist black-and-white paintings display the detritus that accompanies addiction and recovery: a handwritten list of debts; a massive pile of pills; a prescription label outlining Bierk’s dosages of methadone; and the cover of the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book.

Though such depictions take a literal approach to Bierk’s experiences, there are more poetic connections made through the paintings and their installation as well.

For instance, a portrait of Alex’s father—the late realist painter David Bierk—hangs on the west side of General Hardware’s rear gallery, and the rest of that long white wall is left blank. This portrait of the senior Bierk hangs directly across from a painting of Alex’s brother Jeff on the east wall, along which other canvases are strung out. In this arrangement, father and son seem to be gazing at each other through time and space, and their mutual “looking” has an ambiguous quality that oscillates between confrontation and complicity. Such inflections around family and its complexity, as well as the pain of loss, make the show feel like more than a pure documentary effort.

Ambiguity also enters the picture in Bierk’s paintings of houses, roads, doorways and brightly lit windows at night. While these read symbolically as symbols of hope, comfort, and transition, the gallery texts suggest they are sometimes places associated with Bierk’s addiction. In understanding this, there is a sense of light and dark reversing, and we are reminded how in addictive patterning, the places that feel the most comfortable are often the most damaging and dangerous.

The earnest, monochromatic elegance of the paintings in this show is also troubled by chaotic sounds of fighting and shouting that echo throughout the gallery. These ring out from General Hardware’s tiny, poured-concrete basement space, where Jeff Bierk—a photo and media artist in his own right—provides a two-channel montage of colour video fragments that a wall text indicates are culled from his own period of addiction. In these sequences, we see variations on the stoned male odalisque, clad in sweatpants and t-shirt, dozing on couch; a woman sticking her head into a plastic bucket; and fisticuffs taking place. In its own way, this installation underlines a raw, unglamorous aspect to drug consumption, suggesting the external chaos wrought in the quest for a supposed internal bliss.

Part of what makes this exhibition work is Alex Bierk’s painting skill, which lends depth and a sense of consideration to even simple subject matter. His paintings of wine and beer bottles come to mind in this respect. In each one, familiar glass containers are rendered in an inky, black, monolithic gloss that is that is by turns seductive and sinister.

At the same time, the technical finesse in Bierk’s approach may run the risk of aestheticizing addiction—that is, of glossing over the lost years he is trying to recall. I didn’t personally feel it strayed too far in that direction, but it’s a concern that may come up for some viewers.

Overall, I appreciate the vulnerability and skill in Bierk’s attempt to convey the very human effort of picking up the pieces, and his decision to put some of these pieces on view for all to see.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via