Acclaimed realist painter Bo Bartlett has recently moved to Vashon Island from the East Coast, a move he celebrates in his current show at Winston Wachter Fine Art. Part homage to the Northwest, part autobiography, the exhibit announces the arrival on the local scene of a powerful artistic voice. Here to talk about this ambitious show is our critic, Gary Faigin.
The Bo Bartlett exhibition at Winston Wachter is a winner of an exhibition, and because it contains so many different kinds of work, it gives us a good overview of the artist’s strengths and weaknesses.
Very much on the plus side of the ledger is the way Bartlett’s fierce intelligence, taste, and painterly virtuosity informs nearly every work. There are few, if any, contemporary American artists who can match Bartlett’s ability to conjure people and places in paint, and the inventiveness and energy of his brushwork is a joy to behold. The faces of his sympathetically-observed subjects gaze out at us with a directness and intensity that is at times almost disconcerting. Everywhere we look, there is a dramatically painted, highly aware person staring back. Few of his subjects glance away, or for that matter, glance at each other. They want very badly to gain our attention and to let us in, albeit obliquely, to their secrets.
Equally striking is the sense of place that informs these realistic, but highly stylized images. Bartlett has long been associated with the sort of landscape setting familiar from the works of Andrew Wyeth (a friend and mentor of the artist), particularly the stark, elemental coastline of Maine, conceived as a place where only the jagged pyramid of crashing waves interrupts the cleaving marriage of rocky land, churning water, and featureless sky. Bartlett uses the starkness of this setting to lend drama and weight to the stories of the people he portrays, life-sized, in the foreground. These coastal narratives are iconic, timeless, and freighted with a sense of significance. Though Bartlett paints the world of today, since the early 90s he has allowed barely a glimpse of the familiar artifacts of contemporary life, things like sprawl, billboards, and television, the better to focus on the human subjects that are the center of his interest.
So linked is Bartlett with the primal Northeast that it comes as something of a shock to come across several walls containing modest-sized images of Seattle landmarks, everything from Mt. Rainier to the Space Needle, with the container docks and the headquarters of amazon.com thrown in for good measure. Several of these paintings contain rather anonymous figures – not looking in our direction, for once - but for the most part they serve as a sort of catalog of regional attractions, observed with the fondness and attentiveness of a new arrival. It’s as though Bartlett is trying on the local landscape for size, considering which elements to use in narrative paintings yet to come. He’s also making nice with the local clientele, something we can well forgive him for when the baubles are as luscious as his amazing, molten-paint depiction of the spotlit Smith Tower, or his close-up of a container of Starbucks coffee, lit and rendered with the attention and reverence we associate with depictions of holy relics. It’s your basic $30 thousand-dollar cup of joe, and it’s sold.
Given the importance Bartlett clearly assigns to the niceties of his physical location, which has changed, it’s no surprise that movement, transition, and change looms large as a theme in the show. His companion Betsy – an artist at the same gallery - figures in several of these images, here seen meditating while voyaging on Puget Sound ferries, there accompanying the artist on a highway voyage to the opposite coast.
In this latter painting, entitled "The Good Traveler," Bartlett the driver stares directly at us through his side window (rather than at the road ahead) while his companion examines a map. The featureless landscape they pass through is a slice of nowhere, a place to be gotten by on the way to somewhere else. The neutral green-grey palette used for car, clothing, and land is set against the light on Betsy’s face and the vivid blue of several lakes on her map. An incongruous tiara glitters atop her forehead – is she for real? But she’s clearly the focal point of the painting, for it’s she who is engaged in the moment, taking care of business. He’s conflicted about the journey – why isn’t he watching the road? --and we’re led to wonder how far he would get (and where he would go) if he was left to drive alone, which I take to be the point of the painting.
Other large narratives feature beautiful, solitary figures enigmatically meeting our gaze with theirs, or groups of figures lost in their own thoughts. A bus full of everymen and everywomen metaphorically enacts their individual journeys through life; a gorgeous, nearly nude girl with a baby portrays a modern Madonna; two figures lounge on a couch.
If there’s a weakness to these large narrative paintings, it’s clearest in this last image, attractive and competent, but lacking in narrative tension. In his perfectly controlled sense of design and lighting, and his preference for a particular slim, attractive, and preppy physical type, some of Bartlett’s work inadvertently brings to mind the faux-American scenography of fashion advertising, the perfect WASP universe of Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, and Abercrombie and Fitch. It’s one of the curses of contemporary art that the line that separates art from fashion can at times seem so fuzzy, and at times Bartlett seems to veer across that line.
Perhaps it’s also my discomfort with this brittle perfection that make me so enamored of the most interesting and provocative painting in the show, the disturbing "Au Matin." While the subject of "Au Matin" is also transition and displacement, this time the transition is ominous in the extreme, and the imagery is skewed, starting to break up.
Here the Maine coastline of the setting may or may not be a figment of someone’s imagination, since cliff, sea, and waves are seen through a mysterious wall, one which fades in and out of view.
Walking towards the edge of this phantom cliff and away from us are three figures – two identical men in overcoats and fedoras holding a woman in a bloodied straight jacket. Equally unsettling is the posture of the three figures, all of whom lean to one side in a highly choreographed, highly stylized manner, further destabilizing the image. The materiality of the paint shifts in a way that makes us doubt the substance of nearly everything, except for the coagulated blobs that depict the burnt out embers of a fire in the foreground, made of the artist’s palette scrapings. It’s a great picture, and an open-ended one, whatever its place in the artists’ ongoing autobiographical saga.
"Au Matin" is also interesting in that it represents a new direction for the artist, one in which the dreamlike and the surreal plays a larger role. Already at the top of his game technically, Bartlett clearly aspires to more deeply probe the mysteries just beyond the visible surfaces he has so long, and so skillfully, depicted.