New York

Jennifer Bartlett

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

When Leonard Bernstein was lecturing on a passage from Beethoven, he said, “You see, it is a model of the mind.” Jennifer Bartlett’s Rhapsody is a series of almost a thousand one-foot-square paintings on white enameled 16-gauge steel. It covered three walls of the gallery. The medium is the lacquer that is used on plastic model kits. The work is meant to be read from top to bottom, row by row from left to right, and the whole arrangement requires that one read it this way. I started taking notes on the number of motifs and the changes they went through and found that only by following the prescribed reading could I make the changes work.

Getting back to the “model of the mind”; how does Bartlett’s mind work? She seems both obsessive and detached. Her themes are both images and shapes. The images are the mountain, the house, the tree and the ocean. The shapes are grids, dots, lines (straight, horizontal, diagonal and arcs), circles, squares and triangles. The techniques used vary from drawing-board precision to expressionism and photo-Realism. A complete list of the combinations of images, forms and techniques as they go through their changes would fill several pages, i.e. grid/grid in color/mountain/house/trees/dots as line/line/dots as mountain/dots in grid/ocean/dots as triangle/triangle/triangles/arcs/dots as circle/line as circle/disk/dots as disk/house/tree and leaves/realistic mountain/mountain and line/mountain and square/mountain and arc/mountain and disk/mountain and rabbit at dawn/mountain and eagle at noon/mountain and goats at dusk/etc/etc.

The result is like an animated film, except that one is not the prisoner of time. Each new combination adds to, but does not replace, the previous image. One can always look back to a favorite passage.

The problems in the work come from its multiplicity. Bartlett can work in almost any style. Her overall strategy requires endless parlays of the major image-themes and the modifications of scale, geometry, color (the 25 colors that the lacquers come in) and mode of painting. The result suggests that each combination is “in quotes,” as if the artist is equally committed to all or (more importantly) to none of them. But then this is a problem only if one expects the study of linguistics to create a love poem. Linguistics is concerned with how the mind forms language and Bartlett’s Rhapsody deals with how the mind forms visual language. In some ways it is more an illustrated lecture on perception and meaning than the embodiment of meaning in one frozen moment.

––Paul Brach