Bernardo Morphs Automobiles and Living Beings into Sculpture
by Paul Weiner
Bernard “Bernardo” Corman attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and studied at the Johnson Atelier in Mercerville, New Jersey. Bernardo’s sculptures are in the collections of many celebrities including Elton John, Stephen King, and members of the band Blondie. Many of his works incorporate anthropomorphism with the combination of cars, animals, and humans. Bernardo’s sculptures can also be found on his website.
How did you come up with the idea of blending cars with various animals, such as the fish in your Carp series?
One of the first times I combined a natural entity with a mechanical one was in the early 90’s. I did a piece that I came to regard and describe as a retelling of the classical Centaur story from Greek mythology. In my version, a somewhat macho male morphs into a motorcycle instead of a horse. Prior to this piece, I had combined a car with the torso of a woman; I was influenced by a Magritte painting for that one. Like all of my best ideas, the image of the motorcycle/man just sort of popped into my head or swam up from my subconscious. I’ve always been a big fan of Surrealism and agree with the principle that some of the greatest ideas are the ones that occur naturally. I’ve had extremely vivid dreams and odd stream-of-consciousness type visions throughout my life, but most of the time I can’t manage latching onto the things I see or else it’s so complicated and personal that it would be impossible to translate into a visual medium. Being part of a certain age group also brought me into contact with various, shall we say, cultural type influences that left lasting impressions.
The goldfish idea was a similar process. I was working in my shop, and the image of a car-fish popped into my head. I made a small sketch and filed it away. About half a year later, I was in a library and found a beautiful photo book about Chinese goldfish. As I looked at the pictures, I remembered the drawing I’d made and realized that these fish with their long, flowing tails and fins and strangely mutated heads would make the perfect expression for that idea.
I didn’t actually set out to create an entire body of work like this, but in mid-career retrospect I can see that all of my best ideas and pieces just tend to naturally fall into this category.
How did you find yourself creating a massive bronze cast of a Cadillac morphed into a cornered shape?
One very early piece of mine was a Caddy going around a corner. I called it CaddyCorner, and it had been influenced by old Tex Avery cartoons I used to watch as a kid where cars would twist and tiptoe around and things like that. One of them was seen by a person in a gallery setting who got hold of me later through some odd back channels. The people who contacted me were very secretive about who this guy was, but he did end up buying one of them from me along with another popular early piece called Big Ass Buick, which involved a car morphing into the obese rear end of a woman.
I had been working for another local sculptor, making molds of his life sized portraits of fallen service personnel and felt confident about making larger things, five to six foot things anyway. By this time, I’d found out that my client was a well-to-do Kuwaiti businessman, so I screwed up my courage and sent an email suggesting enlarging CaddyCorner up to five or six feet. Lo and behold, I got a letter back saying he liked the idea and asked if I could make it life sized? I was pretty bowled over, but I knew I could do the job since the foundry I had been getting my work cast at had been making monumental-sized work for another nationally known sculptor.
After lengthy negotiations, we settled on a price and I started working on it. It took a year and a half to complete and involved lots of stages and processes. One stipulation was that he wanted to sit in it, so I had to engineer a hidden seat in the back. I tried to do as much of the work as I could because I wanted to feel like I had truly contributed to the piece. I made molds of actual car parts, carved foam, chased bronze, and did many other things as well. I was extraordinarily lucky to have landed the job, and I learned a great deal about my own field of art working on it. Because of its odd size and shape, a custom crate had to be built around it so it could be shipped overseas.
Your work has been collected by celebrities like Elton John and Stephen King, but your prices remain in the low hundreds in your recent Carp series. Are the prices low because of an art for all kind of philosophy or just out of market demands?
A little of both, I suppose. I wanted the maximum number of people to have some of my art, so I priced them accordingly. The Carp are really one of my most accessible and popular projects. I used to think of it as my pet rock project, if you remember those. The great thing about the internet is that you can find an infinite number of items to look at and buy, which, unfortunately for makers, creates a sort of hyper-competitive market. I price the Carp so that people making choices can look at them as being both cool and attainable.
Do you aim for your art to evoke a sense of humor?
Yes, for sure. Always. I think there’s definitely a real absurdity in a lot of things, especially the human condition, and I have tried to tap into that feeling kind of in a larger, cosmic sense. I don’t necessarily think having some underlying humor in art is a bad thing. Life is absurd, and sometimes the only appropriate response is laughter. I’ve tried to capture that essence in some of my work, sometimes to the point of perversity.
How has your style of craftsmanship evolved over the years?
Well, my technical skills have certainly improved over time. Spontaneity can be a harder thing to achieve when you have technical skills. For me, the most fun and creative part of the process is roughing out the clay. All of the most basic creative decisions, for me, get made at that point. I do like to start with an idea or clear sense of what I’m looking for and work towards that. Once the model is roughed out, it becomes a matter of putting in the time and effort to achieve the level of detail I work up to. The devil’s in the details as they say. Once the clay is done, it really becomes rote. There’s various ways of making molds and casts and stuff, but by that point it really is a matter of going through the motions. I do always try to do the best work I can when I build molds and make castings. It’s a point of pride. With cast art, one step leads into another; when I’m sculpting, I’m thinking about the mold making. When I’m making the mold, I’m thinking about how the casting is going to work. If you do a lousy job in one phase, the next one’s going to be that much harder to accomplish.
Tell me a little bit about your favorite cars.
Gee, I don’t think we have that much time! So many amazing cars have been built over the past hundred or so years. Obviously, I have a super soft spot for 50s cars. They were heavily influenced by the aircraft design of the day, especially at GM where Harley Earl ruled the design department. It was the ‘Atomic Age’ and everything was so heavily science fiction at that point. The concept cars from that period are even more outlandish and bizarre. It was actually a copy of a picture book about them (Dream Cars by Jean Rodolphe Piccard; Orbis 1981) that got me interested in doing automotive type art. A friend of mine brought it over, and that was it. I was hooked.
There are two cars from that period that really do it for me. The first is the Buick Lesabre concept car from 1951 and other is the sister car to that one that was designed and built at the same time called the XP-300, also by Buick. Those cars really set the tone and were extremely influential throughout the rest of the decade.
There were some stunning cars built during the 1930s in France by Bugatti and Figoni et Falaschi. The cars from that time are regarded as some of the most classic and elegant ever built, Italian sports cars, the list goes on and on really: motorcycles, vintage trucks, you name it. If it has wheels and an engine there’s probably something worth admiring about it.
Tell us a little about the physical process you use to create Carp.
I start by perusing pictures of the Chinese goldfish. For the first set, I was working out of the book I mentioned, I had gone ahead and got a copy for myself. After that, I try to decide which model of car I’m interested in. I have a lot of reference material as far as 50s cars go. So then I set up a small armature for the clay and get started. I try to keep both parts of the piece going along at the same pace. I move around, bringing everything up to a level of detail that I’m satisfied with. Detailing the car is a place that demands quite a bit of precision and concentration, also putting the ridges into the fins. It’s small, tight work, and it demands a lot of attention.
As I mentioned before, the part of the process thats most pleasurable for me is roughing out the clay. During that part, I make all the most creative decisions about how the piece is going to look ultimately. After that, it’s just having the patience to do the work required.
Once I’ve made the mold of the clay, I’m ready to cast some up. I use a two part plastic that is commercially available and a pressure pot to ensure I don’t get air bubbles on the surface. Once the piece is out of the mold, there is some minimal chasing, and then I paint them. For me, the Carp project was revelatory as far as color is concerned. As a sculptor making bronzes, I felt my palette was somewhat limited by the chemicals that are available. Greens, browns, black and white is what is mostly used. There are a lot of techniques to achieve different kinds of surface effects such as mottling, stippling, brushing, spraying, etc, but not that many color choices.
When I had the first set of goldfish, I was kind of like, “whoa..now what do I do?” so I went out and bought an airbrush and taught myself how to use it. It was just a real joy to explore all kinds of different colors, combos, and painting techniques. Lately, I’ve been trying to replicate natural coloration motifs like exotic birds, tropical fish, and even zebras. I really love that part of the process.
When did you first find yourself interested in cars?
I always thought old cars were cool. I can remember when I was a kid looking at the front end of an old car and thinking it looked like a human face. Anthropomorphism is a principle that found its way into some of my work.
Really, though, the biggest shift for me happened when I was exposed to the concept cars from the 50s and 60s through the aforementioned book. I was just so knocked out. First I thought, “these are like rolling sculptures”. Then I thought, “these would make fabulous sculptures!” I spent a lot of time studying the design trends and styling techniques from that time. I did some designs of my own, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by what I’d done. Prior to the cars, I’d done a number of pieces in a style I had christened Pop-Surrealism. I loved Pop Art and also Surrealism, so I coined the term to describe my own work. Yeah, yeah. I know. I am actually taking credit for that phrase. True story, though.
Anyway, at some point, I realized I should combine my interest in old cars with what I had been doing previously, and that’s when I started producing the Pop-Surreal automotive castings. And the rest, as they say, is history.
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