New York

Bo Bartlett


Bo Bartlett’s paintings are a moving synesthesia of two very different things: the space of monumental figurative painting and the disaster of contemporary life in all its violence and banality. In About Reality and the Sky, 1988, a young man with a shaved head stands wrapped in a sheet against a dusty sky. The brown flat landscape behind him is interrupted by a tent, a wisp of smoke, and what may be telephone poles. Is this some strayed Hare Krishna? A madman recently released from an asylum, a serial killer on the morning of his next murder? The emptiness in the young man’s eyes can be identified as the vacuum that an unassimilable shock produces.

Bartlett’s landscapes are as barren as the look in the man’s eye. His narratives are about transportation and catastrophe; they all seem to take place immediately after some roadside disaster. Tarmac, 1986, shows members of a rescue unit assembled near the fuselage of a plane at an airport, attending a prostrate figure on a stretcher. A semiclothed figure stands in the background among the wreckage of some crash or explosion. Yellow tape printed with the word “Caution” cordons the area of the accident. Bartlett shares with the writer J.G. Ballard a fascination with the accidents produced by a failed technological civilization. His characters seem to be reeling from the shock of some violent, near-fatal collapse of the machinery that has made us into its victims.

In Man of Tarsus, 1988, a bearded young black man in shorts stands with his knees buckling underneath him on the hot tar of a desolate highway. This figure also appears in Damascus Road, 1988; in this painting, he is facing an armed, uniformed white man. The black man would seem to represent Paul at the point of his conversion, but his role here seems ambiguous. Bartlett uses the vocabulary of the figurative painting to represent the state of the body in the aftermath of a disaster; he quotes freely from Velázquez and Delacroix. The violence and horror in Bartlett’s painting is implicit, embedded in the narrative. Whereas Delacroix tried to create an art engaged with the revolutionary turbulence of his times, Bartlett seems to be trying to represent the intense sterility, confusion, and senselessness of ours.

Catherine Liu