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March 6 - April 18, 2009 at Forum Gallery, West Hollywood

by Bill Lasarow

"Empire," 2007, oil on linen, 60 x 60".

"A New Beginning," 2008,
oil on linen, 60 x 60".

"Trophy Day," 2008, oil on linen, 76 x 96".

"America", 2008, oil on canvas, 80 x 116".

"Osmosis and Desire," 2008
oil on linen, 15 x 15".

If any American realist painter may be described as “flinty” it is Bo Bartlett. He directly inherits the mantle of the late Andrew Wyeth; indeed his biographical film of the artist placed him in the closest proximity to Wyeth for years. The line descending from Thomas Eakins could hardly be more direct.

Bartlett is, of course, neither as renowned as his mentor (no insult), nor as aesthetically conservative.  Wyeth was long since mature as the American contemporary movement arose to challenge the premises that shaped him. Thus he was forced to ignore or resist those countervailing trends. Bartlett came of age with post modernism, allowing him the virtue of absorbing diverse aesthetic spirits into his grand vision of the commonplace. Whether or not he is quite the painter that his progenitors were I leave to your judgment. He is very good indeed, and to his credit cannot be dismissed as an artistic reactionary.

If Bartlett is no crank, the evidence seen in this new work is that he is cranky, cranky with our recent history and where it has deposited us. One of the older works here, dating as it does from 2007, is “Empire.” A soldier sporting a mohawk and grasping a sickle—rather than, say, an M16 rifle—overlooks an empty desert landscape. Three plumes of smoke suggest the aftermath of destruction, and certainly call up images of Iraq. The presence of the sickle, a primitive harvesting tool, and the title of the painting constitute a concise metaphor for eight years of a self aggrandizing sense of virtue combined with imperial hubris.

“A New Beginning” constitutes the now closer end of a historical narrative.  Playing as it does off of Vermeer’s “Art of Painting,” it celebrates a wiping clean of the historical slate just as certainly as the older work revels in its age’s achievements.  As is the case in many of his images, Bartlett places we viewers behind the primary actors so that we may see the world from their perspective, but without knowing the character. We are thus free to indentify with them personally, regard them as the artist’s surrogate, or, sticking with the filmmaker’s role that Bartlett is equally grounded in, they may be his dramatis personae.

The stage is alluded to in the guise of the ordinary in “Trophy Day,” featuring a man casually posed holding a loudspeaker before an audience that is applauding. The gazes are not directed at him, but to an unseen figure (or figures) who, we assume, is approaching to receive their award. Three youngsters sit casually before a table piled with the trophies of the title. Titles, with Bartlett, are important. It all adds up to the kind of community function replicated endlessly around the country, a banal but special exercise in passing the torch from one one generation to the next.

As well as even his still life paintings function as metaphor, it would not be fair to think that Bartlett repeatedly peddles the same messages. The jar of “Osmosis and Desire” may hold cheese or an animal brain wrapped in the cloth and submerged in liquid. The image’s appearance though, being more scientific than culinary, affects the meaning of the “desire” called up by the title. It takes a decidedly intellectual turn rather than sensual, and certainly not erotic. It is often said that “words matter.” Here it is equally clear that images, too, matter.

If there is some shifting in the depth of meaning and the literalness of his imagery, and if at times the drama comes across as merely theatrical (see “A Miraculous Outcome”), there is a lot to engage as well as to admire. There is far more to Bartlett than a display of technical adroitness.