Jennifer Bartlett

Milwaukee Art Museum

For most of this decade Jennifer Bartlett has been creating quasi environments, elaborate installations made of large landscape-oriented paintings and freestanding sculptures strategically strewn into the viewers’ space. The pictorial and physical components of her work echo rather than collide; elements depicted on canvas—boats, small houses, fences—are transubstantiated into sculpture, setting up spatial and compositional tensions that elude easy reconciliation. This interest in what constitutes a pictorial field, and how that field can be stretched to a point of crisis or resolution has long been a concern of Bartlett’s, and this exhibition provided an overview of the ensembles documenting that inquiry over the last few years.

All four of Bartlett’s larger series (“The Creek,” 1984, “The Island,” 1984–85, “Luxembourg Garden,” 1985, and “At Sands Point,”1986–87) have as their starting point paintings that richly and almost impressionistically render a glimpse into a corner of nature—a small sylvan river or lake harbor at dusk, suburban arcadian fields dappled with light and shade. Although no figures are rendered in these paintings, human presence is everywhere, implied in the cleared fields, at the moored boats, or as the absent builders of fences and small utility huts. Bartlett’s settings are the places where play has temporarily halted, oases of dalliance themselves at rest.

If Bartlett’s ensembles are usually rendered without human subjects, it is nonetheless the viewer who sets them into motion. As in some Albertian perspectival game, a viewer standing in a certain spot is temporarily rewarded by having all the elements in one of Bartlett’s installations line up in contiguous and overlapping space. Small Boats, Houses, 1987, from “At Sands Point,” renders on a single canvas a double image of a boat and a house; the perspective recedes on the right side. Precise sculpted replicas of the house and boat, constructed of wood painted a pristine white, are positioned on the floor so that from a calculated spot, painted and sculpted objects become exactly the same size. In Boats, 1987, Bartlett’s floor pieces are truncated and cropped, as is the painting behind them. These instances of reductio ad absurdum put Western representational logic to the test and find it sorely wanting; they act as a reminder that the perspectival tradition of Western painting gives us a construct, not reality; data, not fact.

This spirit of inquiry, this sense of complex play within and without pictorial modes, is finally more delightful than jarring. In works such as Sands Point #50, 1986, Bartlett’s integration of sculptural and painted elements is more expansive; the sculptural elements amplify the expressive possibilities of the pictorial ones, and vice versa. The work achieves a symbiosis in which two media seem to fuse into a reconciled third.

James Yood