New York

Jennifer Bartlett

In her last show Jennifer Bartlett covered the gallery walls with 1000 or so 1-foot squares. The squares, which she has been working with for some years, were 16-gauge steel with a white enamel base and a light silk-screened grid; upon the squares she painted (with the 25 colors of a standard model airplane lacquer) in a variety of styles. The squares formed a contextual grid on the wall. No one narrative was prescribed but the whole made best sense when read top to bottom, row by row, left to right. Given that reading and given the title of the show (“Rhapsody”), it was apparent that Bartlett was interested in different kinds of structuring, in melodic versus harmonic aspects of form. Ideas of signification were also important: when do marks become motifs? When is an image complete? When is a series a system? In effect, the show looked like a static projection of an animated film. No one frame or wall effaced the next in time; there was narrative but not the act of narrative—memory and suspense were not much a part of the experience. The work was thus engaged and detached, a sense reinforced by the indifferent compendium of styles.

The present show has much the same look. There is no one title: each wall of squares is named after a street. The grids refer in part to architecture and urban design. This is subtle: the motif of the series, the house form, is often hard to make out. Such indirection is ironic, for the house is perhaps the first non-natural form a child draws; surely it is the first perspectival form. A kind of genesis of form occurs—pristine schema (the house as a flat design), to conventional realism (the house as an object in a constructed space), to higher abstractions—all cruxes in cognition.

For the series to be a system, the motif must change yet remain. The grid is a binary structure that allows such permutation. But here the motif does not change—only the style does. No new code is made, no old code is renewed. One suspects that Bartlett paints toward structural and semiotic criticism.

The style changes randomly. The first piece is based on the Orphism of Delaunay and Kupka (pure color, disc motif); the second shows the Ben-day dot-print of Pop. Elsewhere pointillism and the hatch motif of Jasper Johns are evident. There are even gestures at gesture and color field painting. In the end the show comes close to exercise and virtuosity—a kind of exposition of visual grammar. This is not to say that Bartlett is not a talented painter, but the styles are just there: there is no dialectic with influence and thus no strength. She seems to counter the Greenbergian notion that modernism is self-critical and reductive, but hers is a plenitude that does in fact deplete. She reflects for painting a fate that Roland Barthes sees for literature: “literature can no longer be either Mimesis or Mathesis but merely Semiosis, the adventure of what is impossible to language, in a word: Text (. . . the text figures the infinite of language: without knowledge, without rationale, without intelligence).” What seems with Bartlett to be the adventure of the possible is in fact the adventure of the impossible, the impossible of old styles. Her work has no closure, no signature of intent. Each text is just “further”: no one is an index to another or to the whole.

Hal Foster