Bo Bartlett (b. 1955) is a successful contemporary realist, often compared to such all-American no-nonsense painters as Edward Hopper, Thomas Eakins and Andew Wyeth. Wyeth, in fact, is a mentor and collector of Bartlett’s work. But Bartlett has an idiosyncratic wit all his own, on display in an early summer show of recent paintings at David Klein Gallery in Birmingham, Michigan. He explains his commitment to verisimilitude in a series of paradoxes: “The realist painter who is painting the ‘real’ world is perhaps more in touch with the inner world than the conceptualist who is addressing issues of the intellect, the outer world…I find my ‘inner’ purpose by going out into the world, and I find my ‘outer’ purpose by going into the studio.” Born in Georgia and trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Bartlett often paints outside—he has a summer house in Maine and a home in the Pacific Northwest—but translates his impressions into elegantly formal compositions in the studio. The results can be subtly surreal. Au Matin (2006) argues for Bartlett as an American Magritte. The three figures with their backs to us are characters in some enigmatic narrative, reflecting the artist’s skill in framing an incident (he has a filmmaking degree from New York University). Here, two men in film noir overcoats and fedoras flank, perhaps restrain, a girl in pedal-pusher pants and a straightjacket. The choreography for the anonymous actors is intriguing: they lean in unison, diagonal against the flat edge of the backdrop sea, which is interrupted by a wedge of rising spray. It takes a moment to realize that they are posed in front of a translucent grey scrim, complete with a mind-bending doorway to infinite nature.
Even when we see the faces of his protagonists, their stories remain tantalizingly out of reach. In The Good Traveler (2006) a man and a woman are framed by the curved side window of a car. The male driver, hands clutching the wheel, turns to gaze at us; the female passenger, holding a map, is lost in her own world. He is in soft shadow, while sunlight bathes her face, seen in exquisite profile, and glints off her incongruous tiara. The limited color palette seems determined by the almost-abstract world outside the car—no trees, no houses, just flat-as-a-pancake ocher earth and dull blue sky. The landscape is repeated in miniature in the trapezoidal rear-view mirror. The interplay of angles—he leans back, she leans forward—and curves and horizontals is formally exciting, playing against the couple’s deadpan expressions. Another couple appears in House of Cards (2006), youngish, quietly hip in matching black turtlenecks. They are seated at a table with clean trapezoidal legs providing a space for a white dog underneath, a neat pyramid of a lighting fixture above. Man and woman are isolated, separated by white squares of window. The picture suggests both the Flemish couple portraits of Hals and Van Dyke, and the flatter contemporary portraiture of David Hockney.
Bartlett’s colors tend toward the monochromatic. He has experimented with grisaille and sees muted color as a way of emphasizing the artifice of realistic paintings. Reality is seen through a veil of memory and dreams. He explains: “Limiting the palette pushes me to think of the essential form and narrative of things.” That narrative element, however elusive, seems crucial to his best images. Single figure pictures—such as the bust portrait Arechon (2006) and the woman on the beach of The Soldier’s Wife (2005)—are less successful. The lone individuals don’t bring enough interior life to the scene. The Soldier’s Wife is also the most colorful painting in the show, and the bright orange of the smoking can seems garish against an overtly blue sea and sky. Bartlett loves black-and-white photographs and describes how “your mind fills in the color, and when you have the tones right, you feel the color.” Bartlett “fills in the color” beautifully in The Golden Age (2006), an afternoon idyll with a boy and girl on a taupe suede sofa, a hazy back-projection Tuscany filling the wall behind them. The boy sleeps while the raven-haired girl, holding a book, looks out at the viewer with the face of a Renaissance princess. The way Bartlett handles light and shade, all suffused in umber-amber tones, is cinematic.
Bartlett’s work is in many private and public collections, including the Columbus Museum, Denver Art Museum, Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His website is www.bobartlett.com. David Klein Gallery is located at 163 Townsend, Birmingham, Michigan 48009. Telephone (248) 433-3700. On the web at dkgallery.com