Painting of the Day

9 Jul

Atlantic Ocean. by Jennifer Bartlett (born 1941). Enamel over silkscreen grid on baked enamel steel plates, 1984. Currently on view in the exhibition “Jennifer Bartlett: History of the Universe–Works 1970-2011” at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), Philadelphia.

Notes about Bartlett and her artistic process from the aforementioned exhibition brochure:

Emerging in the mid-1970s to become one of the leading American artists of her time, Jennifer Bartlett is one of the first female painters of her generation to be both commercially successful and critically influential. When her monumental painting Rhapsody was first shown in 1976, it was regarded as a tour-de-force postmodern pastiche of the history of Modern Art. This pivotal work later served as a point of departure for Bartlett to explore different media and develop new techniques. Over the course of her 50-year career, Bartlett has become known for her process-oriented, abstract works that offer viewers inventive narratives.

Moving freely back and forth from abstraction to figuration, from minimalist rigor into maximalist exuberance, exploring various materials, combining plate paintings with paintings on canvas, Bartlett has remained true to her vision of painting as an open associative process with unending possibilities. She continues to experiment, always willing to subvert and unsettle the seeming happiness and simplicity of her imagery and to break the rules that she invented more than 40 years ago.

In the late 1960s, Bartlett, inspired by New York City subway signs, began using twelve-inch square steel plates coated with baked-on white enamel, in place of stretched canvases. Liberated by an infinitely expandable painting surface that could easily be hung on a wall and by restricting her palette to only six colors– white, black, yellow, red, blue, and green–Bartlett was able to allow her compositions to unfold spontaneously plate by plate.

Bartlett’s plate compositions often form an unstructured grid made of structured grids. The plates are 16-gauge cold-rolled steel, with smoothed edges, measuring one foot square with a white baked enamel surface, and a small hole in each corner with which to fix the plates to the wall. They are silk-screened and epoxied with a light gray grid that mimics the graph paper that Bartlett, like so many other artists of her generation, used for drawing. All the dots in Bartlett’s plate paintings are painted by hand. No two dots are ever alike and they routinely cross over the grid rather than neatly filling each square.

My comments:

Unfortunately this picture does not give anything close to the same experience you have when you see this giant grid painting in person. You can’t see the lovely, exquisite rendering of the sea that Bartlett has accomplished with her careful, deliberate painting. I visited the exhibition in which this painting is currently on view last week, and it was a treat to take in each and every square, one by one, absorbing all the lovely swishes of dark blue paint that Bartlett so skillfully used to paint and represent the ocean. I will be writing my first review for the Phoenix on this exhibition, which will appear in its first issue at the beginning of the school year in the fall. But anyway, looking at this painting now, it reminds me of the cloudy sky I saw last night. I’ve literally never seen a cloudy sky quite like it in my almost 19 years of life. The clouds were incredibly close to the ground, and they were almost patterned or layered, with each layer bearing a different shade of blue/grey from the others. It was an incredible painting in the sky filled with hues of blue, grey, lavender, and dark violet, just absolutely gorgeous. It was easy to feel like you could stare into it forever, and that was the same feeling I got when I looked at this painting by Barlett, as well as many of her paintings featured in the the exhibition. She is able to create a work that truly captures nature. But she is not mimicking nature or trying to be naturalistic. Instead she is able to evoke the same breathtaking beauty that one can only see in nature, which is quite a feat. It’s an interesting version of the man vs. nature conflict you hear about when you study literature in school, but in this case the fight is about who can create the most beautiful sight?

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