Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain
at The Autry Museum, Los Angeles
Reviewed by Nancy Kay Turner
“For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face…” — I Corinthians
“In today’s world, love, art and magic are greatly needed” — Fritz Scholder
Things You Know But Cannot Explain is the poetic title of the exquisite Rick Bartow retrospective at The Autry Museum. A heady brew of neo-expressionist drawing, painting and sculpture with lashings of Bacon, Basquiat, Kitaj, Scholder and even Nathan Olivera, this is a show not to be missed. Beautifully installed, with small videos strategically placed around with the artist candidly talking of his life in illuminating ways that enhance the viewer’s understanding of his work. No art jargon here. Just plainspoken words by the artist himself, who had struggled with alcoholism, PTSD and, towards the end of his life, two strokes (from which he would recover). It seems, upon further examination, that the title of the exhibit is more specific than poetic. After his strokes, Bartow knew “things” that he could not explain.
The exhibit is divided into three distinct but overlapping categories — Self, Dialogue, and Tradition. The “Self” area is the one viewers see first and it is a powerful introspective examination of Bartow’s demons. One of the earliest works (1979), is a stark monochromatic graphite on paper, large-scale drawing, entitled “Things You Know But Cannot Explain,” (from which the show derives its title), that portrays a ghostly bald figure, eyes shut tight, mouth agape in a silent scream, hand reaching out, with a hint of some figure in the background. This everyman, perhaps a stand-in for the artist, appears as a character in many of these large drawings. This portrayal is as unforgettable as it is hauntingly beautiful. Here Bartow wields an eraser with the same force and elegance as he does with black pastel and graphite, creating a dense, palimpsest surface, seething with energy.
In 2001, Bartow drew “Die Altersschwache (senile self),” a large- scale (no dimensions given) pastel and graphite on paper work. Though it is 22 years later, Bartow exhibits the same effortless, fluid, edgy and thoughtful contour lines. Each line is interrupted by forceful erasures, which alter them giving the whole image an unsteady dream-like feel. Once more, the artist’s hand is reaching out (as it shown twice in outline and once in shadow), trying to touch a seemingly unreachable, mute nude lover. Bartow’s expert use of subtractive techniques makes every inch of this surface crackle and pop.
It is fascinating to see how consistent Bartow’s body of work is throughout the decades as he spirals back to earlier themes and techniques. “Man in the Box” (1987, pastel, graphite on paper) literally has a figure squeezed into the middle third of the picture plane. The misshapen figure seems to twist. We are seeing the man’s back from the waist up, but then his wobbly front from the waist down. The figure almost seems to be tied in a straight jacket and his head appears to be slightly above a line, which suggests water. There is an internal and external struggle going on here, defined by the strong slashing diagonal lines angrily crisscrossing the figure, suggesting inner torment. Other drawings from 1979–2010, almost all pastel and graphite on large paper, continue this sense of unease or dis/ease as Bartow distorts features and body parts (often the upper torso of the body) while indicating what lies within- an enlarged heart or hints of skeletal parts. Bartow uses these fragmented body parts to indicate the dislocation of the soul. Bartow was a teletype officer and a medic during the Vietnam war and received (according the curatorial wall texts) a Bronze star for heroic achievements but suffered greatly from PTSD at a time when it was less understood. In 2008, he did a series of works, which address these invisible wounds.
The “Dialogue” section of the exhibit showcases Bartow’s homage to painters such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fritz Scholder, Francis Bacon and others that he admired. By the 1990’s he had added scrawled text (perhaps as an homage to the already tragically deceased Basquiat) to his drawings and paintings. “ABC123” (2013, graphite on paper) was drawn after the Bartow’s second stroke when all he could say was ABC 123 and his own birthdate. His frontal self-portrait with his slightly awry glasses, is striking in its intensity. The stroke caused the right side of his face to droop, but his left eye looks out at us with both fear and determination. The mouth is open with the bottom teeth visible. Gorgeously rendered in pastel, it signals that Bartow has lost none of his artistic powers. However, there is an obvious disjunction between the skillfully modeled head and the more primitively drawn “body.” In the irregular shape representing the torso there is a large red oval form (perhaps a heart) and handprints around this shape like those of ancient cave painters. Bartow has said that he “ believed that all artists, all mark-makers, owe a debt to the creative lineage that began when humans first painted on a cave wall.” The dichotomy of skill between the carefully modeled head and the sketchy body is staggering and speaks to the challenges Bartow had to overcome.
In the excellent curatorial wall text, the curators say that “Bartow’s unique multicultural perspective…represents a dialogue between the artist and his various sources, including his own blended ethnicity, honored cultural traditions…” Bartow said, in describing his work in one of the videos, “There are old things which I have been able to lay my hands on. I’ve studied. I’ve listened. I sit by the truth.” There is a distinct spiritual component to his profound works.
Bartow’s sculpture is also quite potent, especially a piece entitled “After Van Gogh” (1992, lead, wood, acrylic, nails, copper, crab claw) which seems like a three-dimensional embodiment of his own line drawings. The hairless battered head, missing one eye and part of one ear (homage to Van Gogh) is made with thin sheets of lead nailed in a rough irregular grid. The mouth is open (silent scream, gasping for air, or mute) and the head sits atop a wooden obelisk, with rusty nails hammered in where the vertical obelisk meets the horizontal base. It seems that the truth of being human, as Bartow sees it, experiences it and expresses it, is that life is filled with intense sorrow and pain.
The “Traditions” section of the exhibit connects Bartow with his Native American roots. Bartow’s use of totems, shamans, mythological figures who are half-man, half-animal treads on familiar ground but always with a freshness and rare authenticity. “Bird Bird Bird Crow Crow” (2013, acrylic and graphite on canvas) is a small gem — a bittersweet painting with a sketchy half bird, half man figure standing on two scrawny bird legs. While the bird is elegantly painted, the head of the man emerges awkwardly out of the body, simplified and somewhat sad. The co-joined figure is constrained by the white background, which is pressing in on them. It seems that neither the bird nor the man is free. Bears, Crows, Coyotes, Salmon, Frogs, and Horses all appear in this section as harbingers of magic and the special powers of the spirit world.
The psychological tension inherent in all of Bartow’s work and the consistency of his elegant and robust mark making over many decades, are hallmark’s of his achingly personal style. Ultimately, Bartow’s work is all about the struggle to connect to one’s ancestors, to one’s loved ones and ultimately to oneself.
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