BO BARTLETT: IN­TI­MATE WORLDS

BO BARTLETT’S NEW­EST PAINT­INGS AT MILES MCEN­ERY GALLERY BAL­ANCE THE PUB­LIC AND PRI­VATE SPHERES.

American Art Collector - - Contents - By John O’Hern

In 1807 Wil­liam Wordsworth pub­lished a son­net that could have been writ­ten yes­ter­day. The World Is Too Much With

Us to­day as it was then, per­haps even more so with 24-hour news pro­vid­ing in­for­ma­tion into con­flicts around the globe and on our fail­ure to be car­ing stew­ards of the world we live in.

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Get­ting and spend­ing, we lay waste our pow­ers;—

Lit­tle we see in Na­ture that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sor­did boon!

This Sea that bares her bo­som to the moon;

The winds that will be howl­ing at all hours,

And are up-gath­ered now like sleep­ing flow­ers;

For this, for every­thing, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A Pa­gan suck­led in a creed out­worn;

So might I, stand­ing on this pleas­ant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less for­lorn;

Have sight of Pro­teus ris­ing from the sea;

Or hear old Tri­ton blow his wreathèd horn.

Bo Bartlett paints large nar­ra­tive paint­ings that re­late “to sit­u­a­tions in the world right now—en­vi­ron­men­tally, so­cially, po­lit­i­cally. I’m not tak­ing a stand,” he says. “I’m pre­sent­ing the prob­lem. One of our jobs is to re­main as ob­jec­tive as pos­si­ble. To at least be aware and not to fall vic­tim to any side or pro­pa­ganda.”

In the sum­mer, he and his wife, artist Betsy Eby, live on a tiny is­land 20 or so miles off the Maine coast. Wheaton Is­land is ad­ja­cent to Ma­tini­cus Is­land and forms the east­ern part of the larger is­land’s har­bor. Wheaton’s high­est el­e­va­tion above sea level is 26 feet and it com­prises about 20 acres of gran­ite ledge and trees.

When the world is too much with him, he takes his dinghy out for a row around the is­land, to clear his head and to be­come—as it were—grounded.

The dinghy is a re­cur­ring theme in his paint­ings. In The Flood, 2018, the rower (usu­ally the artist) fer­ries his fam­ily over what was once dry land, at­tempt­ing to se­cure their safety. It was in­spired by the floods in Hous­ton brought by Hur­ri­cane Har­vey. The steeple of a church stands proud of the wa­ter and the par­ents gaze to­ward it as a sym­bol of hope. Their chil­dren, how­ever, gaze into the watery dis­tance hop­ing for hope.

Bartlett’s nar­ra­tives re­late to the world as well as to his own life. He care­fully con­sid­ers all pos­si­ble in­ter­pre­ta­tions of his fi­nal com­po­si­tions through count­less sketches. “I know enough about the fig­ure and what it re­flects un­con­sciously,” he says. “I have to be mind­ful not to project too much and leave it to oth­ers to de­ci­pher their own mean­ing in the paint­ings. As an artist, you have to know what the pos­si­ble mean­ings could be be­fore you start. You can’t cre­ate am­bi­gu­ity. Am­bi­gu­ity is a flaw.”

Di­as­pora, 2016, con­tin­ues his ex­plo­ration of the tragedy of Syr­ian refugees, mak­ing their way across the sea, some drown­ing on the way, some wel­comed, some not, a tent city con­sumed by fire. Yet, Bartlett says, “You have to paint your own story, what you know. I want the paint­ing to be true to my own ex­pe­ri­ence.” In Di­as­pora, the fire refers to the de­struc­tion of the refugee’s tent city and to the fact that his fam­ily has bon­fires on the beach. It sug­gests, as well, a funeral pyre. A man (Bartlett) car­ries a dead woman up from the shore. Bartlett’s youngest son, Eliot, died at 27. Eby’s ethe­real ab­strac­tions are painted in part with fire. Eby and her friend, Lark, em­brace at the top of the rock, gaz­ing at the viewer, to­ward what may be a more wel­com­ing fu­ture. “It’s an enig­matic scene,” Bartlett of­fers. “It re­lates to how I feel in re­la­tion to what’s hap­pen­ing in the world.”

His lat­est paint­ings will be shown in an ex­hi­bi­tion at Miles McEn­ery Gallery in New York through July 7.

Among the paint­ings is a small gouache, High Tide, 2017, look­ing to­ward the sea from the French doors of his stu­dio. High Tide is a re­minder that liv­ing on an is­land “it could be a mat­ter time be­fore wa­ter is lap­ping at the door,” Bartlett says. The blue sky and wa­ter are the col­ors of Maine at its most strik­ing although the soft, shift­ing, gray fog can cre­ate its own sooth­ing mood.

Bartlett paints a gouache ev­ery morn­ing “to warm up and get my­self pre­pared for the more se­ri­ous work of the day,” he says. “Gouaches hap­pen fast. They’re painted in the mo­ment. I grab a piece of pa­per and the paint­ing is done in three hours. The col­ors dry the same as they go down. They’re done com­pletely for my­self. There are thou­sands of them. I can hide be­hind the big multi-level paint­ings but in the gouaches, every­thing is show­ing.”

The day af­ter we talked, he emailed me with more thoughts about the gouaches. “I feel more vul­ner­a­ble about this show than I have with oth­ers in the re­cent past. I’ve had over 60 solo shows, so I’m ac­cus­tomed to the whole process…but this show is dif­fer­ent. Miles McEn­ery re­ally liked the im­me­di­acy of the gouaches and wanted to show them. I’ve never shown them be­fore…

“The gouaches are not pub­lic state­ments…they are com­pletely pri­vate… never painted to be shown…they are a part of my pri­vate med­i­ta­tion prac­tice…done for my­self…to keep my­self bal­anced and in touch with re­al­ity in these crazy times…

“Es­pe­cially in these times…with so many press­ing so­cial is­sues, I feel that it is im­por­tant to bal­ance the large pub­lic state­ments with these in­ti­mate sub­jects… the pub­lic and the pri­vate. Publicly we must ad­dress the larger is­sues…and pri­vately it is healthy to find our own touch­stones. This prac­tice can keep one at­tuned to one’s own re­al­ity…one’s own truth. Paint­ing these gouaches keeps me grounded…sane.”

Per­haps, as he rows around Wheaton and over to Ma­tini­cus, Pro­teus and Tri­ton will rise from the sea and tell him that by shar­ing these in­ti­mate works he may help the viewer con­nect with what he calls the “in­ner-outer world.”

1 The Flood, oil on linen, 82 x 100"

3

The Swing, oil on linen, 60 x 60"

3

2

2

Di­as­pora, oil on linen,

82 x 100"

4 The Outer Shoals, gouache on pa­per,

22½ x 30"

5 High Tide, gouache on pa­per, 22½ x 30"

6 Bo Bartlett paints Do­min­ion in his

Maine stu­dio.

Pho­tos courtesy the artist and Miles McEn­ery Gallery.

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