There are nine paintings by Bo Bartlett currently at the David Klein Gallery, of which half are troubling and the other half left in question by the first. These are eye-opening, masterfully painted works that nevertheless leave one puzzled by the artistic strategies of their author.
The most worrisome is the painting called The Teacher, a large, complexly composed work in which we’re confronted by a full-body self-portrait of the artist standing with his clothes in disarray, while behind him, in equal disarray, lies a youthful female figure on a couch. She clutches her undone virgin-white blouse to her breasts, while at her feet, beyond her violated parochial-school plaid skirt, rest her stained panties.
The Teacher is a startling work, but what’s suggested by the combination of the nasty little scene and the title is perhaps even more startling. The artist-as-teacher has taught the pupil a hard lesson and the subject of it resides somewhere in the style of representation and values of American culture. The image, composed of a series of intersecting vertical and horizontal lines, references Mondrian and the world of abstract art. Bartlett’s complicated painting seems to suggest allegorically that there is in modernist abstraction a dark, nefarious cultural influence whereby the traditional morality that holds life together is compromised by modernism’s efficient, minimalist designs.
Bartlett’s awe-inspiring paintings celebrate the tradition of American realists. He studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the home of such realist masters as Thomas Eakins, and was, in the tradition of Eakins, a student of anatomy. Many of his early works suggest a nostalgic kinship with Norman Rockwell and a magazine-illustration style of representing American life. He’s a rare example of an American realist painter who has been passionately involved with both realism’s history and an attempt to formulate a view of American history itself.
In “Figuratively Literal,” an exhibition of realist painting curated by Mel Rosas at Wayne State University’s Elaine L. Jacob Gallery last year, two of Bartlett’s paintings were memorable for their masterful technique. Yet there was an underlying and enigmatic irresolution about their uncanny “spiritual content.” The paintings now at David Klein send a confounded message that mixes the Rockwellian plain-truth style of painting with a symbolic use of the figure, and the traditional allegorical impulse with a dash of modernist critique thrown into the mix.
In Where is My Father? (pictured), a Madonna of Northern European stock stands precariously on a rock holding an angelic infant. Bartlett’s mastery of portraiture is revealed in the complex message that her countenance delivers, which allows her at once to be a sturdy, contemporary woman while being embedded in a Christian allegory. The infant is monstrous in the complexity of his identity. His angelic, winged hair becomes horns, while his black-capped and haloed head transforms his body into the Antichrist or a bomb. The child’s shirt design then easily becomes the international symbol for radiation danger.
Bartlett’s loaded deck of symbols and allegorically inflected painting feels less like a contemporary hybrid form than a forced narrative in the service of an exclusive, private vision. His whole body of work slips in and out of whack — at first brilliant because of his technical mastery and remarkable updating of a grand lineage — and then abruptly becomes personal and myopic.
His paintings seem to be dealing with big social and historical issues, and yet there’s a palpable absence of some sort. In the smaller portraits, such as FogBow, ForBo or Ambergris, this absence isn’t apparent. By brilliantly rendering obdurate moral beings that seem pulled from American history, they support the idea of Bartlett’s spiritual quest — yet we go back and forth trying to find a key for the vision as a whole.
Because of its ongoing sense of a historical project, there’s an excitement and complexity in Bartlett’s work that’s well worth our investigation.
Bo Bartlett’s paintings are at David Klein Gallery (163 Townsend, Birmingham) through Dec. 20. Call 248-433-3700.Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]