Bo Bartlett – Paintings of Home


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School of Charm, 2010, oil on linen, 76 x 90 in.

In 2010 it would be an obvious option to dismiss Bo Bartlett’s new exhibition at PPOW as retrograde, reactionary and familiar.  The first impression is of an artist completely out of touch with his moment on earth and the realities of this particular art world.  In an art world in which success is largely determined by possessing no more than moderate skill, topicality, quickness, mocking solemnity and aesthetic resonance that rivals a talk show, how does he think he can get away with painting like this?  Who does Bo Bartlett think he is? How can anyone paint this way anymore?

Having said that – the paintings are special, singular and pleasurable, made by an artist/painter at the peak of his powers with something to get off his chest.

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Inheritance, 2010, oil on linen, 48 x 66 in.

For the artist this seems to be a trip down memory lane and for me they are controversial. Not only does Bartlett paint big narrative paintings in the painterly tradition of the Pennsylvania Academy, Norman Rockwell and the art-world’s least favorite stepchild Andrew Wyeth, he transgresses most of my New York sensibilities.  I am a Northern female liberal Jew who derives a lot of satisfaction from the progress American society has made in the last 150 years.  To see paintings that suggest we go back to the 1950’s to a place where Abraham Lincoln is a curse word, being gay means being happy and the Tea Party is the only party, I can’t help but feel strangely ill at ease with Bartlett’s imagery.  Going into the gallery opening was like entering some sort of Lynard Skynyrd theme park, a south of rural white man’s Brigadoon fantasy.

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Land of Plenty, 2009, 82 x 82 in.

But in defense of Bo Bartlett’s exhibition, which I love and recommend, we live in a time where diversity is and should be celebrated.  The social and political import of these paintings deserve tolerance even if they offend my New York Feminazi sensibilities.  My understanding is that Bartlett is no Rush Limbaugh. I am told Bartlett’s credentials as a defender of social and economic justice are without question and that he is not espousing any sort of nasty angry white “southern man” agenda.  He is one of us – he just paints like one of them…

Bartlett’s ‘Paintings of Home’ depict scenes from the artist’s childhood home in Columbus Georgia, which was recently turned into his studio.  According to the press release, this series explores the concept of the archetypal home, which in psychological terms is symbolic of the self.  Bartlett continues to bring together his knowledge of art history, religion, psychology and current events to create paintings that are personal, but universal.  The reference to “home” is not about the place, but the town as a whole and its values.  While Bartlett is clearly influenced by artists such as Thomas Eakins, Andrew Wyeth, Grant Wood and Alex Katz, he continues to depict an American subculture as a raconteur, a skillful storyteller revealing his heritage and southern values that now have much broader context.

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Home, 2010, oil on linen, 88 x 92 in.

The most promoted painting of the series, Home, depicts a scene in Bartlett’s childhood backyard that is intended to symbolize his entire life.  We can only see the back of his head and body on all fours, while the central figure of the canvas is a woman who stands front and center gazing directly at the viewer. Bartlett’s muse and model is his wife, a central figure used repeatedly in his work.  Additionally, on the right side of the canvas a child lays half asleep on a blanket in the grass. The house depicted in the background shows the windows of his bedroom, his parents’ bedroom and bathroom, as well as the attic all painted black.  With the urge to peer into each room and discover more information about the piece, the inability creates a dark mystery.  Here the artist shows us his own life as a way to express the universal notion of the home.  The suburban landscape and blue grey clouds set the overall mood of a contemporary realist piece in addition to the theme running through all of his work of storytelling, family and tradition often found in Southern literature.

So all this having been said, it is a pleasure to see muscular paintings with multiple strengths and psychological and political complexities, that challenge our opinions and stimulate a dialogue about: why aren’t there more shows around that are this good?

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The Way, 2004, oil on canvas, 94 x 124 inches.

Bo Bartlett lives on Vashon Island, WA and Matinicus Island, ME.  He has had numerous one person exhibitions and has had retrospectives at the Columbus Museum in Georgia, 2003 which traveled to the Greenville County Museum of Art, SC, the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, WA, the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, CA and Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, PA.  In the summer of 2007 he had a one-person traveling exhibition that began at the Farnsworth Art Museum, ME.  Bartlett graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, PA and also has a certificate in film from New York University.

Bo Bartlett on EIL

 

Meredith Rosenberg

Meredith Rosenberg currently lives in New York City where she is the Gallery Director at BravinLee programs and partner in BravinLee editions (hand-knotted rugs by contemporary artists).  BravinLee programs is pleased to present Philip Akkerman, Am I A Person?, October 22 – November 24, 2010 www.bravinlee.com