New York

Jennifer Bartlett

The “problem” to come to terms with in an overview of Jennifer Bartlett’s career is the shift in sensibility that followed the “In the Garden” series (l980–ca. 1983). Up to that point, what had been most impressive about Bartlett was her imperious intellectual will. Recently less in evidence, it seems that the artist’s struggle for control has become subliminal and/or sporadic. Her more recent, multimedia series—“The Creek,” 1984, and “Luxembourg Garden,” 1985—present a deeper immersion in unmanipulated natural scene.

This is combined with a return to rudimentary sociocultural shapes that , unlike the basic image units-the enameled steel plates-of Rhapsody, 1975–76, seem to go backward in time, searching for lost innocence, rather than to function as the building blocks of a new, systematized narrative imagery like that in Rhapsody, which carried the viewer relentlessly forward to a climax.

In some ways, Bartlett’s progression from overt to subtle manipulations of natural imagery has been occurring all along, even before the completion of “In the Garden.” Over the years she would gradually transpose her ellipsoids into water blossoms, her grids into pool tiles. Rather than pursuing truth, definitive and fixable, she would begin to pursue light-immanent, shifting, and only capturable through a move to realism (since light, rendered in an abstract work, generally reads as color or the absence of it). She would surrender complete control in exchange for qualified control.

Although the move toward a grasp of the unrecoupable and the unaccommodated paralleled the move to realism, it now expresses itself in paradoxical images—apertureless houses, brick boats, plaid boats-set in nature. Whereas Bartlett had been concerned with the diurnal passage of time (for example, in At the Lake and At the Lake, Night, both 1979), she now abjures natural rhythms and sequences, grounding these “dream” images in broad daylight. If Bartlett’s earlier swimmers (“Swimmers Atlanta,” 1979) attempted passage, drenched as they are in Impressionistic hachure, the latest work rejects any linkage to Paul Cézanne: these incongruous objects will never become interested in their surroundings. Hence the plaid, for one, serves as a blatant sign of hallucination. The plaid is Bartlett’s new grid (also not found in nature); it is decorative and perhaps, in its evocations of childhood, narrative art .

There’s something of a nostalgia for the family vacation in “The Creek.” Its suggestions of leisure activity exclude the nonaffluent as unequivocally as the neoclassical pool and putto (however seedy) in “In the Garden:’ but Bartlett’s New World skepticism ripped that ”indulgence“ of the European aristocracy into shards of relativity Back home with the paintings and sculptures in ”The Creek," the primeval forest, only minimally domesticated by unobtrusive white railings and tasteful toy sailboats, is left intact.

More and more, Bartlett seems to accept a traditional landscape, the incongruous images in it functioning as both resistance to and a return of the repressed; that is, while her brick boats and windowless houses are surreal and therefore allied to the unconscious, they are also willful, imposed on the scene by the artist. And certain configurations hint at embattlement. The composition of the painting Brick House, 1985, from the “Luxembourg Garden” suite, is such that an oblong of light is set into a larger dark rectangle , giving the effect of looking out from a bunker, and many of the wooden boats in ’The Creek“ resemble those used in landing troops on foreign shores. Yet in spite of her obvious homage to Claude Monet’s The Japanese Footbridge, 1920–22, Bartlett’s white railings in the earlier series separate rather than span: hers are guardrails. In details like this, the old Bartlett, who, unlike the Impressionists, would not dissolve her ego in nature, remains; but at the same time, the distancing device of the sequential frame in Rhapsody and ”Swimmers Atlanta“ has been replaced by three-dimensional objects scattered in real space, resulting in the kind of breakdown of the division between stage and audience that marked the open theater of the ’60s. Rhapsody was progressive; ”The Creek“ and ”Luxembourg Garden" are regressive. But maybe the latter are just as risky in their willingness to work their way backward in the hope of gaining new insights. Recueillir pour sauter: to recoil in order to leap.

Jeanne Silverthorne