by Marlena Donohoe
(Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills) The grid and the simple primary object have figured prominently in the work of Jennifer Bartlett. During the 1960's Bartlett inherited the schooling and considered process of Minimal art, but not its hardened heart.
Lumped in with Minimal systems, Barlett's early grids seemed more like formal armatures intended to tie experience--the artist's making and the viewers' viewing--tightly and literally to the flat picture plane. The grids were not the point, they were mere maps onto which Bartlett hung lush marks.
The new large scale paintings presented here are still organized around the grid, and also around an old theme favored by Bartlett: Water.
"Waterfall", o/c, 72 x 72", 1997.
Grids are now built of painted streaks of color covering the surface like a downpour in a rainbowed monsoon. For every vertical streak, there is a horizontal compliment. If you stand back from these large, embracing works you have the sense that you are looking at a crudely loomed, richly hued fabric through which has been threaded vague little pictures.
Laying on, in, through or behind grids (you can't fathom which), limned with the quick hand of a Matisse sketch, The Storm includes little nude swimmers floating in vast, gridded seas, rocks careening against splashing currents, and tiny boats caught in a storm of color and toppled by the sheer physicality of the artist's recorded of marks.
Maybe if you wait around long enough everything is new again. These interwoven streaks look and feel in their scale and uninterrupted quality like the continuous skeined fields of Pollack, and they have the same effect of creating an infinite surface not bound by the edges of the canvas, but, uncontained, moving up and out.
The difference is that Pollack built his fields from frenzied gestures, while Bartlett links us and the figures to the literal 2-dimensional plane in a way that is Cartesian and methodical.
The simple swimmers, houses, boats and trees in the canvases and sculptures are the primary objects coined by Bartlett during the first decade of her career. They provide the limited narrative parameters she allows herself. In this show objects on canvas are echoed in real space in the form of sculpted boats and bridges that reiterate (as if you hadn't already noticed) a point and counterpoint between presentation and representation, between object and sign, between sign and evocation.
Bartlett's first home was Southern California--Long Beach--and there is a seemingly characteristic fascination with water and light, and with liquid, sensual worlds that's appeared in her work for more than two decades.
Barlett is by her own admission an unabashed character. She is unabashedly ambitious, unabashedly hip (she lives between Paris and New York so as to be with her French film-star husband), unabashedly, even anally disciplined about her craft.
That same sureness ribbons the unlikliest cadmium yellows beside deep blues so that the eye and field oscillate wildly. The same sureness sends little wisps of nude, raw pink back-stroking through a 7-foot charcoal maze for an effect that is both rigorous and hipnotic.
If conceptual painting can be both cerebral and sexy, this is how it looks.