Bo Bartlett’s inner visions connect us to a shared feeling of home.
A merican artist Bo Bartlett’s paintings reveal a luminous world that is at once familiar and uncanny. Here, we glimpse carnivals, a lone figure riding a bicycle beside the shore, a woman in a wedding dress standing in a pink-wallpapered room, a zeppelin floating through the sky. Bartlett’s scenes have the aura of daily life, but these visions aren’t simply realist snapshots of the American experience. Instead, they possess the delicate impermanence of memories and dreams, half-remembered faces, and barely grasped stories. “When I'm painting in the late afternoon and I'm working on a passage in a painting, the feeling I'm trying to get is this feeling of home, it's a feeling of place and time” explained Bartlett.
Bo Bartlett on Painting the Modern American Life
Bartlett was born in the small city of Columbus, Georgia, in 1955. The city, though far from the big hubs of culture, was vibrant (consider that Amy Sherald, Carson McCullers and Ma Rainey all hail from Columbus), and its influence indelible on the artist. After decades spent living in Philadelphia and Seattle, the artist recently moved back to Columbus with his wife, the artist and musician Betsy Eby, where the couple paints out of a converted cotton mill. They also spend their days running the Bo Bartlett Center, an art-focused educational destination affiliated with Columbus State University that permanently houses many of Bartlett’s paintings. In the summers, the couple travels to their home on the remote Wheaton Island off the coast of Maine, and spend their time painting all day following the sun’s rhythms.
These two remote locations on opposite ends of the Eastern seaboard appear mysteriously reborn in Bartlett’s paintings as though his memories of the two places have wandered into one another and birthed new stories and characters all their own.
This synthesis infuses the artist’s latest series of paintings Things Don't Stay Fixed, which will go on view at New York’s Miles McEnery Gallery on 13 May. The paintings create a kind of visual reverie filled with colliding imagery reminiscent of the Southern Gothic, the carnivalesque, and the Maine Coast’s stark and mighty ocean with the fishing villages that dot its shores.
In the painting Miriam on the Dam, a woman with a turban-like beehive of hair, swirling with flowers, faces out towards a body of water, her arms extended. She seems a kind of priestess of the Deep South, who could readily be presiding over the butchering of a shark, a quintessential Maine scene captured in Where Did All That Life Go (2020).
These images are not wholly imagined. “Growing up the Chattahoochee Valley Fair happened once a year in the fall, filled with carnival rides, the Million Dollar Midway and the barkers and the freak shows,” said Bartlett, “It was very surreal and a Southern way. The fair was a big part of my childhood. In the paintings, there's an echo of it, a suggestion. I wanted to be a clown or something when I was a kid and run off with the circus and have that kind of roaming kind of life,” said Bartlett. Memories of recent and distant coalesce. In his painting of sharks, Bartlett speaks of Maine fishermen and memories of road trips long ago.
“Everyone who poses for me usually is either a friend or family. I use my relatives, my children growing up, when they were growing up,” said Bartlett. “In Jungian ways, they might represent a different aspect of the self the way when one has a dream that everyone you meet represents a different aspect of self.”
On many levels, the images are a testament to Bartlett’s complex approach to storytelling – almost all the images in the series are inspired by scenes from Bartlett’s recently completed feature film by the exhibition’s same name, in which a family drama unfolds against the background of the rural south (Bartlett earned a certificate in film at NYU sometime after he started painting).
References both literary and artistic shine through. Edward Hopper’s Soir Bleu (1914), an unusual painting that shows a clown, cigarette in his mouth while dining at an outdoor coastal cafe, comes powerfully to mind. Andrew Wyeth – with his ability to capture the eerie qualities of American life – is another, more immediate influence. Bartlett struck up a long friendship and mentorship with Wyeth while filming a documentary of his life, and his influence haunts corners of Bartlett’s practice.
Currently “Form as Foundation,” a curation of works selected by Bartlett from Sotheby’s upcoming American Art sale, offers more insights as to his inspirations. Bartlett gravitated to works by Wyeth and a study for one of Norman Rockwell’s most acclaimed covers of The Saturday Evening Post, but he also reaches back into history, as is his habit, to include works by the likes of Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent.
Bo's Selections from American Art | May 2021
These selections form a kind of conversation across centuries between artists about the role of the human figure in art – a dialogue that Bartlett seems uniquely poised to negotiate. Taking up figurative painting in the 1970s, there weren’t many contemporary artists whom he could draw from, and often had to mine the past for inspiration, from the Surrealists to Renaissance masters.
“Growing up, I didn’t know much else about art except what came into my house. That was Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth, Salvador Dalí, and Picasso. It had to be majorly well known. It had to be in Life magazine,” said Bartlett, of this artistic awakening. “Then I went to Florence when I was 18 years old because I read the book My Name is Asher Lev in high school, and in the story, the character Asher Lev goes to Florence to study art.”
While in Florence, Bartlett took up with an expatriate crowd of artists and began to study with the realist painter Robert Long, immersing himself in a tradition of figure drawing dating back to Michelangelo.
“We weren’t trying to paint in a retrograde way, but in a reactionary way to what was happening in the culture,” he said. When he returned to the States, he enrolled in the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, where, he says, he had to look to artists of past generations to create his own, idiosyncratic lineage. “There weren't many realistic painters at the time, which today is hard to believe, but there were very few,” said Bartlett. “I often went at loggerheads with most of my faculty, who said I couldn’t paint figuratively, but like most artists, I was contrarian and wanted to prove that we could engage the figure.”
This bleeding together of past and present occurs in Bartlett’s own artistic process. His recent painting Hurtsboro (2021) is an example. It’s a tender painting; five young Black men sit on the beach, their backs to the viewers, and looking out to the ocean. The arrangement is tender and has a spiritual evocation – each distinct body calling to mind a Last Supper scene shown from behind. With the unrest of the past years, the image creates a very contemporary space for rest and joy for these figures and draws from our current moment after tumult, mourning and racial justice protests of the past year. At once, Bartlett links the image to a long-ago memory of his.
Currently, a first, smaller version of Hurtsboro will be included in Sotheby’s American Art Auction, while the larger version will be the centerpiece of the Miles McEnery show.
“It goes back to a very specific experience that I had when I was a teenager hitchhiking in Florida. I was picked up by this car of five guys. I was a white kid with long hair. We were from different places and with very different experiences, but we connected in that moment. We drove through the night, eating crabs and drinking beers in this old car, throwing the crabs out the window as we finished eating. Hundreds of miles later, we said our goodbyes, but that memory of those guys always stuck with me.”
In a sense, this stirring of past and present is Bartlett’s great gift – his paintings call forth his memories, which call forth memories of our own, creating a great tide of experiences, echoes of the truth, where new stories continue to emerge and disappear with each passing wave.
Lead image: Bo Bartlett, Things Don't Stay Fixed, 2019. © Miles McEnery Gallery