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Bo Bartlett: Paintings of Home.

Bo Bartlett: Paintings of Home

Illges Gallery, Columbus State University

Columbus, Georgia

March 24-April 23, 2011

Painter Bo Bartlett is known for his record of fifty solo shows, ten of which have been in New York at the P.P.O.W. Gallery. So exhibiting a huge collection of works (123 paintings and drawings) in Columbus, Georgia may seem like an anomaly, but not so much so when one considers that it is Bartlett's hometown. Columbus recently hosted not one but three exhibits spread across the downtown. (1) The most remarkable, entitled Paintings of Home at the Illges Gallery, was chiefly composed of works that Bartlett made since regaining his sight after a brief bout with blindness caused by a pituitary tumor in 2008. He has pointed out that a short seclusion in total darkness can help an artist see better and this temporary loss of sight opened his eyes to what the gallery noted as a "new rigor and truth." This claim is supported by the admirable quantity and quality of his recent production that breaks new ground, including School of the Americas painted in 2010 (Figs. 1 and 2).

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Few would question the virtues of Bartlett's technical talent, which echoes Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, and Edward Hopper. Over Bartlett's long career, critics have also appreciated his attachment to an American painting lineage that goes back to John Singleton Copley or Benjamin West, but in the recent age of postmodernism, some critics may have yearned for a missing sense of irony and detachment in Bartlett's earnest North American narratives. (2) For much of the past quarter century, it could be argued that irony and a self-parodic streak have largely sustained narrative painting against post-modern angst about the viability of narrative. Bartlett is happy refraining from such parody stating, "I am what I am." (3) That said, to call his work devoid of any post-modern irony is going too far especially considering some of his newest work, like School of the Americas. This painting may have the sharper edge that some of his critics were longing for, yet it is still familiar enough to satisfy his loyal enthusiasts.

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Compositionally, School of the Americas is not characteristic of a typical Bartlett painting. At first glance one perceives beautiful young women sleeping, as if being observed from a bird's-eye view. The ring of figures composed on the square panel creates negative shapes that are as complex as the figural shapes. This democratic surface design, like the illusion, is seductive and supports the initial reading. As one moves closer to the painting the initial perception of innocent calm changes as blood and bandages subtly become recognizable. This perceptual shift not only makes us reanalyze the painting visually, but causes an intellectual shift to new questions. Eventually, it is evident that the women are either dead or acting dead, but why?

Speak with just about any Columbus resident and the answer becomes clear. The painting is titled after the controversial training center for foreign military leaders at Ft. Benning, Georgia--long known simply as the SOA for School of the Americas. (Never mind that the United Sates Army training center has changed its name to the awkward Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.) Every November, "die-in" protesters seeking to shut down the school don bandages and fake blood and drop to the ground at the gates of Ft. Benning as a memorial to those victimized by SOA graduates--the 1980 rape and murder of four U.S. Catholic nuns in El Salvador is one example. The painting's subject is regional in context but global in scope, raising questions concerning U.S. military reach in the world.

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School of the Americas has post-modern reflection on par with the likes of Eric Fischl, who deftly demonstrated his best with works like The Old Man's Boat and the Old Man's Dog back in 1981 (Fig. 3). In the Fischl painting there is an outright surrender of any hope in a modern utopia, and five reclining figures on a boat couldn't care less about the oncoming dangers of the storm, a force emblematic of a global dystopia.

Bartlett's figures in School of the Americas deal with on-coming world threat differently. As young protesters they also find utopian ideals to be suspect; however, in their repose they are ironically taking action against the threat. They are confronting the inventors of the end of the world--us. Specifically, they are facing down the strongest military in the world--a military mandated to prevent apocalypse, but also one with apocalyptic potential that could explode if not regulated by the people. Bartlett's narrative is thus a multifaceted and subtle reflection, un-reliant on easy kitsch. School of the Americas becomes a reflection of ourselves; we still want to believe in something good, even in a world with utopian enthusiasm put into checkmate. Bartlett shows us a postmodernism that is exhaling, possibly mutating into something else: a post-post-modernism, a so called metamodernism, in which words like faith and action no longer require "air quotes" of ironic detachment and once again mean something and lead somewhere concrete. (4)

Another 2010 work in the exhibit, School of Charm, might at first seem to undercut this whole analysis (Fig. 4). The large painting of kids in a 1950s charm school is a dead ringer for a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. However, considering where it was hung, as an intentional pairing with the School of the Americas, the work cannot be taken at just face value. Bartlett attended that charm school as a boy and admits to an isolated and idyllic early childhood where some of his most memorable exposures to art were Rockwell cover illustrations. In the painting, Bartlett has the guts to show where he came from but doesn't go for jingoistic nostalgia. Just as a fuller understanding of Thornton Wilder's play Our Town requires some sensitivity to irony, so too does Bartlett's School of Charm. The charm-schooled Bartlett has grown up and negotiated a new world where supporting those feigning death at a military gate may not be good manners but is a necessary protest. (Studio sources indicate that Bartlett himself has attended eight of the Fort Benning die-in memorials over the years.) This ironic coupling of paintings shows not only a growth in Bartlett from a boy to a man but also his growth as an artist. There it is, the postmodern irony, with some redemptive sincerity to boot.

A final standout in the exhibit was Blind Tom (2010, Fig. 5), a small portrait of Thomas Wiggins, a blind savant born into slavery in Columbus in 1849. The definitive 2009 biography by Deirdre O'Connell chronicles the life of Tom--a barely communicative genius who taught himself piano and had composed his first tune by age five. (5) At his height he was one of the most popular American touring pianists, earning the equivalent of 1.5 million per year in today's dollars, amassing a fortune for his caretaker as an indentured servant. In painting Thomas Wiggins and other Columbus natives, such as Ma Rainey and Carson McCullers, Bartlett is stepping into the shoes of those who were part of his foundation growing up in the south. But Blind Tom seems to be a bit more than that. As O'Connell puts it, "Tom is a story with bottomless complexity. Ultimately, his life makes us think about what it means to be human." This is the kind of lens that might be used to truly see all of Bartlett's paintings. Paintings of Home allows us to know Bo Bartlett better and encourages us to look again at his earlier paintings to re-evaluate generalizations about the work.

Endnotes

(1.) The three concurrent exhibitions ran from March 24 to April 23, 2011: Paintings of Home at Columbus State University's Illges Gallery (gallery director: Hannah Israel), A Survey of Paintings at the W.C. Bradley Co. Museum, and Sketchbooks, Journals and Studies at the Columbus Bank &Trust. All exhibits were curated by the artist.

(2.) Joe Hill, "Bo Bartlett," Art in America (January 2003): 105-106. Hill stated that Bartlett's work was "entirely devoid of postmodern irony."

(3.) Quoted in exhibition wall text, Bo Bartlett: A Survey of Paintings, W.C. Bradley Co. Museum, Columbus, Georgia.

(4.) Vermeulen, Timotheus and Robin van den Akker, "Notes on Metamodernism," Journal of Aesthetics and Culture, Vol., 2010.

(5.) Deirdre O' Connell, The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America's Lost Musical Genius (London: Duckworth & Co. Ltd., 2009).

Stephen Knudsen

Savannah College of Art and Design
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Author:Knudsen, Stephen
Publication:Southeastern College Art Conference Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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