New York

Jennifer Bartlett

Rarely do contemporary artists provide as detailed evidence of their gestural processes as Jennifer Bartlett does in her recent work. As an added bonus, she cares deeply about the creative tradition that has influenced her work. “In the Garden,” an installation of 187 drawings, is very much about the landscape tradition; it is also about the history of 20th-century art—about breaking down the imitative powers of the line and imbuing them with something more abstract, more nervously emotional.

Bartlett frees her hand to respond to such masters of the personalized line as Van Gogh, Matisse, Feininger and Kandinsky. In each of her drawings she investigates, tirelessly and inventively, the same scheme: a reflecting pool accented by an ornamental mannequin pis, backed by a stand of trees and framed with a boxwood hedge. The series begins with the pool in sunlight, rather objectively drawn, and ends with a suite of expressionist nocturnal drawings in which selected views of the garden are paired with vignettes of some feral night creature. The style in these final drawings is so idiosyncratically assured that one almost forgets the stylistic tour de force which led up to them.

Composed primarily of drawings set up as marginally intersecting diptychs within each frame, the installation moves through modernism with such steamroller authority that references to Howard Pyle, Ad Reinhardt and David Hockney can coexist on the same wall without seeming to be mutually exclusive. Whether, in reality, these three would benefit from such proximity remains a moot point, but as indexed by Bartlett they are part of a very distinct lineage.

Relationships are juggled in the series for both emotional and compositional resonance. The introduction and removal of color are actions startling in their dramatic, emotive power. The garden is pulled apart, detail by detail, and reassembled. The more familiar we become with the topography, the more compelling and varied it seems. Aerial views, close-ups and middle-distance shots are included. The juxtapositions and editing of the images are almost cinematic. (I can’t remember an exhibition where Eisensteinian montage played such an important part.)

When Bartlett’s renderings of the pool are at their loveliest, and most traditional, she removes a zigzag piece of hedge, rudely interrupting the perfect boxwood frame. When the mannequin pis has been clearly established as a poolside ornament, Bartlett commences a suite of figure drawings in which the figure—alternately male and female—both cups and manipulates its sex. Like the hermaphroditic Semi Dio in Fellini’s Satyricon, gender is not the point, but its associative powers are.

At a moment when there is so much molelike scrimmaging going on in American art, when the trendsetters are sprinting through brand-name genres as if in a relay race (Oh my God, Punk just stumbled; look sharp, Decorative is dropping back; New Wave and New Image are neck and neck), it is reassuring to encounter an artist who is willing to take some time, to slow down and recollect. Bartlett’s “In the Garden” is a healthy response to the insidious, self-serving malaise of “gentrification.”

Richard Flood