New York

Bo Bartlett

Bo Bartlett’s fastidious realist paintings feature heroic figures in lonely American landscapes that recall Thomas Eakins or Winslow Homer. This show marks a shift away from Bartlett’s cluttered depictions of political and technological disasters, toward simpler compositions that appear to draw on dream and memory as opposed to the nightly news. Yet while Bartlett’s new work is more introspective in tone, his taste for desolate land- and seascapes peopled with idealized figures engaged in mysterious activities remains constant.

Like those celebrated masters of the uncanny, René Magritte and Paul Delvaux, Bartlett employs pristine illusionism to portray ambiguous and often bizarre contemporary scenes, and it is this tension between form and content that contributes to the enigmatic quality of these paintings. In Hatchechubbee, 1990, a work in which four men participate in a masturbation ritual of sorts, digging and “fertilizing” holes in the soft earth along the banks of a Georgia river, the raw eroticism is eerily distilled. The result suggests a kind of contemporary history painting. Like Eric Fischl, Bartlett is a painter of post-Modern experience who presents psychologically charged views of American life, yet his vignettes depend less on hackneyed Freudian scenarios.

The pervasive mood of these paintings is melancholic and restrained. The composition of God, 1990, is dominated by the monumental head and upper body of a brooding young man who is oblivious to the expansive landscape behind him. In Transcendent Function, 1989, a man and a woman in a dark interior lean on each other for physical and emotional support. Shot through with an unaffected, Poussinesque stillness, these paintings are affecting, but surprisingly free of sentimentality.

Though seemingly vast, the space in Bartlett’s paintings is that of a selective psyche in which certain elements are foregrounded at the expense of all others. Bartlett’s images reflect an interior rather than an exterior reality. Out of Nowhere, 1990, a self-portrait of the artist on a bicycle, surveying a deserted drive-in movie theater, is less a slice of life than it is a realization of a state of mind. Bartlett’s settings evidence a unique brand of alienation that suggests Wim Wenders’ take on the American scene.

The paradoxical combination of hallucinatory clarity and ambiguity that characterizes these paintings gives them a dreamlike quality—they are tantalizingly available yet just out of reach. In Fire, 1990, an oil drum burns with a vivid, overdetermined intensity; another work, entitled Delivering the Goods, 1990, is a haunting, dreamlike image depicting three young men ferrying a cow on a small raft.

On the one hand, Bartlett’s flawless paintings seem out of step with the times, yet his mediation of personal expression and tradition—however blatantly traditional—is typically post-Modern. Unlike most post-Modernists, however, Bartlett has reached back to a highly problematic, pre-Modern stylistic source. It is fascinating to watch someone work so successfully in a forbidden zone, in a style that is anathema to Modernists as well as to (most) post-Modernists. Bartlett walks a fine line, neither blindly resuscitating academic figure painting nor forsaking its normative affective potential in the service of a purely conceptual exercise. Key to his endeavor is the unique synthesis of self and historical source. This is perhaps the quintessential post-Modern challenge, and one Bartlett is meeting with increasing success.

Jenifer P. Borum