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by Miles Mathis

Unlike mainstream critics such as Peter Schjeldahl or Arthur Danto, who appear to intend to write uninteresting things that are also false, or Dave Hickey, who appears to intend to write false things that are occasionally interesting, I intend to write things that are both interesting and true. I am seeking those true statements that tend to go under cover in a milieu such as ours, getting lost in the noise and bustle of a modern existence, and when I do find them they seem to jump as from nowhere, like a grasshopper behind a leaf. So if I tell you something you weren't prepared to hear, it is not by accident. What you are least prepared to hear is often what you most need to hear.

That said, I will begin this critique with praise. Like Graydon Parrish and Jeremy Lipking and Yuqi Wang and a few other realists, Bo Bartlett has always impressed me as an earnest artist, with talent, imagination, and a great deal of potential. I don't know Bo, but from reading his website he seems intelligent, well-read, and genuine. Beyond that, I have seen several of his works I really like, and that is rare enough in itself. I have used this piece below the heading of my article on New Realism for years:

That is a really lovely mood and composition, and the painting stands as an example of that now rarest of adjectives in realism: subtlety.

This is another of my favorites of his:

A good composition, simple but strong. Here's another good idea for a painting, done well:

And this is also a good idea for a painting, although I think it doesn't quite come off.

Take away the guy and the white swimsuit (which looks like underwear) and you would have a mystery that could almost sustain itself, without eliciting a chuckle.

Those are a few older works of Bartlett, but I am writing this paper mainly as a critique of his more recent work, specifically of his show at Forum Gallery, Los Angeles, in March and April of this year (2009). Again, I will begin with the painting I like [see above, below title]. That's a stunner, just about perfect. Great model, perfect color harmony, strong mood, subtle but deep. The only false note is off the canvas, in the title. “Sweetness” doesn't work, even if the model is his wife, as I suspect. Not that she isn't sweet, but the mood of the painting isn't sweet. It may contain a smudge of sweetness, just because she is so beautiful, but the painting goes way beyond sweetness. The title conflicts with the painting, which is the last thing you want. The title doesn't describe the painting, or even suggest it. A title should either be a perfect suggestion of the painting, or it should be an almost invisible tag. It should never compete with the painting, or undercut it. Cutesy titles should be avoided, as should pseudo-intellectual titles. This is how we realists separate ourselves from the phoniness of Modernism. The title here is a bit cutesy, and it is probably a pet name or inside joke. As such, it can only distract from the “iconic” nature of Bartlett's work. Bartlett has stretched the neck (I assume) and simplified all artistic conventions (like color, composition, etc.) in order to give his subject an eternal quality. He has succeeded completely, I would say. All the more reason to look sideways at that title. You do not title an icon “Sweetness.”

A similar painting, “Alexis,” may be his daughter, since she has mom's eyebrows. I could just look up these things, but I can't be bothered. With icons, relationships are meaningless. What is important is that this painting doesn't quite hit it like the other one. It is not bad. Nothing is technically wrong here. His beautiful and interesting model is well-painted. But the mood comes off a bit flat. This younger girl doesn't have the interest in her face that the older woman has, or Bartlett hasn't found a way to bring it out fully. She needs a more expressive light and pose. The light in “Sweetness” is more raking and one-sided, giving us more mystery. The full warm light in “Alexis” works to bring attention to the cleavage, which is admittedly nice; but, as a matter of art, our eyes should be on her face. The eyes and mouth set the mood, and if our eyes are wandering, we can't fully read the mood. But the face isn't emitting a coherent mood anyway. We are being blocked by the model. She seems uncomfortable with the decolletage, and she punishes the artist and us by building a wall. Bartlett may be aware of this aloofness, trying to use it to build tension, but I doubt it.

Bartlett has a third face-on portrait in the show, of himself, but I would call it a complete failure. As I read his face, I see a total wall, a full psychological blockade. He is not only not expressing anything, he is willfully repelling the eye of the audience and painter (which in this case is himself). He might as well title it “Don't Look at Me!” Beyond that, he has a bad haircut painted badly, two collars that don't go together, one floral shoulder, and one lapelled shoulder. The background is an empty brown, like barren earth. It almost appears that Bartlett is trying to do everything wrong here, on purpose. This painting may be some sort of cry for help, and it should certainly be hung in his psychiatrist's office, as a nest of clues.

Seven of the 19 works in the show are portraits of objects: a scythe, a bucket, a wine bottle, a jar of varnish, a burning broom, a rock, and a set table. These may also be clues left for his psychiatrist: otherwise, they are meaningless to me. I don't know why artists paint these things or why people buy them. Bartlett isn't the only one painting objects like this. Jacob Collins has painted candy wrappers; Claudio Bravo has painted crumpled paper; and many other contemporary realists are doing the same, painting blenders and telephones and cars and fishing rods and subway turnstiles and tubes of paint. They might as well be painting Brillo boxes and Campbell's soup cans. Usually, it is the horrible search for subject by artists with no imagination. But in the case of Bartlett, it shouldn't be that. Bartlett has so often done better than that. Perhaps it is a quota of small works given him by Forum Gallery to appeal to the less rich. I don't know. But in my opinion the works are throw-aways. He shouldn't waste his time on them, and he certainly shouldn't put them in a major show.

But his large works are also unimpressive here. The worst of the lot, in my opinion, is “A Miraculous Outcome.” This is a second form of his older painting "Car Crash," but he didn't bother to correct any of the weaknesses in the sequel: he just added some more weaknesses. Like many modern realist works, it is wooden and manufactured. The idea is poor, the composition is poor, and the paint quality is poor. The cliché title fails to undercut it only because the whole concept is cliché. You see this sort of work over and over in galleries like Forum and John Pence and the other top realist galleries, where any one of a hundred oversold artists are trying to manufacture a paintable event, and failing utterly to do so. The background is empty and boring, the car is too small, the people are cutouts, and the color is off. Just look at their pants and shoes. Even in this small photo, you can tell that everything is wrong. Is he standing on her toes? Are his pants transparent? Why are his pants the same color as the grass? Wouldn't any other color have been better? What is that shadow under his sleeve and on the back of his shirt? If it looks awkward here at 4 inches you can be sure it looks even more awkward at 90 inches. But even if it were painted perfectly, it would be a stupid idea. Painting can't and shouldn't compete with TV and film in documenting contemporary tragedy. A painting of a car wreck must look pathetic next to live coverage or a cinematic treatment.

"A New Beginning" isn't much better. Clearly an homage to Rockwell, this painting doesn't generate any interest at all. The background is a mess, with the bookshelves off-kilter; the sleeve once again contains strange shadows; and the outfit of the artist is ludicrously outdated, without any apparent reason for being so. The only possible interest is the little girl in the corner, who has a nice mystery in her stare. But the overall effect of the work is equivalent to the effect of the canvas within the canvas: it is a blank.

One of the two sold works, “Empire,” was painted in 2007. But I don't see the appeal. As with “A Miraculous Outcome,” Bartlett appears to be following Nerdrum. “A Miraculous Outcome” was a sort of return to the Bartlett of the 80's, when he was following the younger Nerdrum, seeking “modern” excuses for painting multi-figure works. Likewise, “Empire” follows late Nerdrum into the realm of fake myth and apocalypse. We lack the Nerdrum clouds, drifting lazily by like zeppelins, and we get a mohawk instead of a leather helmet, but the idea is the same: violence, rubble, and the end of days.

The other sold work, “Kingdom of Ends,” is a return to the Bartlett of the 90's, when he went strongly Americana. I read this work as a mild paean to technology or globalism, which must go over like a lead balloon eight years after 9/11. Either that, or it is intended as a mild rebuke of globalism. In either case, the mildness is a problem; and in any case, the ambiguity is dangerous.

The conservative, Rockwellian, jingoistic faith in the sanctity of the American Dream has been obliterated in the last decade by both political parties and all their operatives in the media, and paintings like this can be read as either hopeless naïvete or purposeful misdirection.

The same can be said of other Bartlett paintings, beginning with “Allegiance.” I find very little irony in Bartlett's treatment, which must make the painting prone to be read as a 50's-style piece of bald propaganda, promoting blind allegiance to government. Yes, the child has his eyes closed, but that is entirely too subtle for the current political climate. More important, psychologically, is that we have a beautiful child in bright sun and blue sky, and a title “Allegiance.” This painting could hang in Dick Cheney's home, with none of the guests aware of the true message. I assume Bartlett is not intending to propagandize blind allegiance, but his mild treatment is not appropriate now. It may have been the right flavor for the 90's, but the world is not what it was then.

An artist is not required to address politics, but if he does, he is required to mirror the gravity of it. Even in the 90's, Bartlett was only putting a toe in where a full dive was required. In his painting, “Old Glory,” a young girl is wrapped in the flag. He may point out that the flag is soiled and that the girl is near a cliff, but again, that is entirely too subtle for the subject. It is not obviously a cliff, it might just be another of his rocks; and the soiling is subtle enough to be misread as shadow. Which means that this painting is entirely too easy to read as jingoism.

“History Lesson” is also weak. Bartlett can claim it is a lesson in pacifism, but it is not a strong lesson. We already know that a lot of people died in wars. That is the definition of war. Putting some numbers on a blackboard is not going to impress anyone, especially when they are watered down by a pretty Rockwell composition and a giant flag. Bartlett didn't even manage to fit in the Korean War, and his numbers for the other wars are way too low. If we include civilian casualties, for example, the number for Vietnam is closer to six million. And even Wikpedia admits that the total for WW2 is around 60 million. Without talking to Bartlett in person, we don't know what his intention is here. But ambiguity in politics is not a virtue. Subtlety in portraiture is wonderful; in politics, it is deadly.

Bartlett may point out that in his blogs his politics is clear, but it isn't as clear as he imagines there either. After railing against Bush for eight years (rightly) and starting (with his wife) an American Peace Prize, he said in a squishy message in late 2008 that it was OK to have hope in Obama. It would be OK, except that it required ignoring a mountain of pertinent facts, beginning with Obama's voting record in the Senate, which was 180 degrees away from pacifism. It required ignoring his associates and appointees, who are not doves by any stretch of the imagination. It required ignoring his TV ads, which spoke of terrorism over and over, to plant a false fear just like the Republicans. And it now requires ignoring his record in the first six months, where he has re-started the war in Afghanistan, continued the war in Iraq, and propagandized for war in Iran and Pakistan. He has also failed to demand repeal of the Patriot Acts, he has failed to call for the repeal of the Military Tribunals Act and to re-instate habeas corpus, he has not closed Guantanamo, he has continued to cover up Abu Ghraib, he has increased the power of the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Reserve, and he has continued to use signing statements, despite promising not to. Perhaps worst of all, he has not re-opened the 911 investigation. For these reasons, among many others, I do not go to Bartlett for my politics, neither his paintings nor his blogs.

Bartlett has one nude in this show, “Vashon Academy.” It isn't strong. The main head, again face-on, is good, but the rest threatens to dissolve. The background is empty, the clock isn't round, and the legs and seat are nebulous. Beyond that, the composition doesn't work. Why crop it there, except that he doesn't like to paint feet? Are we to accept that the artist in the painting is painting this nude so high and to the side, so that she has to crane her neck between brushstrokes? And is that an attractive pose, regardless, sitting straight up like a pole, with the hands lost in the crotch and the feet dangling like noodles? Those legs would be asleep in a matter of minutes, and her back, unsupported, would droop in like time. Put that lovely girl in a real pose, and ditch the rest of this fake composition.

Lastly, I will comment on “Commoners,” one of Bartlett's signature square works with three figures. Looks like Bo, his wife, and a pretty blonde friend. A trio of musicians is a serviceable idea, and the bell outside is a nice touch, but otherwise this fails to jell. It fails primarily because it is fake. These people don't look like commoners. They look like pretty people pretending to be poor and full of soul. They can't afford a sheet for the mattress or paint for the walls or shoes for their pretty feet, but they can afford an expensive mandolin and a twice daily shower. These hippies or gypsies are entirely too clean. Even their feet are clean, in a poor house that must have dirty floors. Plus, the girls don't appear to be playing. They are pretending to play as they are pretending to be commoners. Also, why is the light falling on the two girls in different ways? The blonde looks a bit hazy all over, and it is because her shadows are two steps lighter than the those of the central figure. Wouldn't it have been better if the two dresses weren't so nearly the same color, and both so near the color of the background? We want the figures to stand out from the background, not dissolve into it. And we want each figure to have its own existence. The shaded off blue of the blonde makes her even hazier. The central model is striking enough to survive any competition: the artist didn't need to put the blonde behind a dirty glass. Even the feet don't work. Bartlett has four naked feet to paint, which would be heaven for me, but he blows past them like they are legs on the bed. The blonde girl's toes are barely defined: the upper foot almost evaporates. And Sweetness' feet are unconvincing. The hanging foot is too small, and the third toe on each foot is slightly deformed. She may actually have toes like that, but a fix was in order. An icon—even a commoner icon—with curly toes is a distraction. Plus, well, you know, “commoners” don't exist any more. The word is outmoded. This doesn't look like a period piece (those aren't period clothes), but “commoners” is a period word.

I don't comprehend this entire show, or the intention of Bartlett, or the intention of Forum Gallery. Forum would appear desperate for a successful show, since Bartlett is not one of their “in house” artists. He was not on their list before the show and is not now. Except for Nerdrum, they don't have what one would call a strong slate of realists, by any criteria. I don't like Nerdrum, but I can admit he has some strong points. As for the rest, I don't see it.

So they bring in Bartlett, drastically raise his prices in the middle of a depression, and sell only two works. No doubt they blame him entirely, but most of the blame is on them. They should have seen that this collection of works couldn't bear a large price bump. Only a couple of them were painted recently, the rest being unsold by PPOW. Forum even stooped to misdating several of them, although the real dates are listed on Bartlett's personal site. Forum should have given him more time or been satisfied with a smaller show at lower prices. But the real test is “Sweetness”. Since that painting—which is perfect—didn't sell, we may assume that the fault was with the gallery. It wasn't Bartlett's fault that didn't sell. If a gallery can't sell a work like “Sweetness”, even with a bad title, it can't really justify its existence, in my opinion.

Beyond that, the clientele for these realist galleries is a nuisance to art history. They won't buy a work like “Sweetness” because it is a portrait, but they will buy terrible manufactured scenes of tragedy and banality, for reasons beyond artistic comprehension. Look at this painting by another of Forum's artists, Paul Fenniak:

What is the appeal there? Who would buy that and why? Or how about this self portrait by William Beckman, which is sold:

Somebody, who we assume doesn't know Beckman personally, paid big money for that. But “Sweetness”, which is vastly superior, doesn't sell because it is too “portraity.” The world is full of people who think it takes more talent to paint with high detail, when the reverse is true. Beckman's painting is an unattractive photocopy, which any camera can create. He even gives us a stark white background, like a passport photo. When Beckman feels highly creative, he reaches this pinnacle of beauty:

Although it has bad light, a paste-in background, no brushwork, no expression, and no mood, it sold.


Even worse are his drawings, clumsy and expressionless.

In a similar vein is Robert Bauer.

That painting is 7.5 inches tall. Impressed? I'm not. No matter how big or small it is, it is ugly and expressionless. I don't need a painting of a bald guy trying to emote like a zombie, at 7 inches or 7 feet.

These last examples are representative of realism in the top galleries. The galleries and clients actually prefer bad work. They go mad for empty and utterly inartistic photorealism, while ignoring real painting. We can see this at John Pence, as well, another top realist gallery. Look at this drawing by Michael Bergt:

That is simply a stupid pose, neither graceful nor sexy nor anything else. I have nothing against an open-pussy pose, but if you are going to do it, do something with it. The internet is stiff with sex poses that are more artistic than that, and yes, I use that first adjective on purpose.

How about this painting by Jacob Pfeiffer:

If you find that clever, you need to check your nervous system for heavy metal poisoning. Switch to a non-fluoride toothpaste.

If you like that, you will go mad for this, by William Bartlett:

It is called “Illusionist's Props”, so, yes, that is a dummy's head. I know, it is hard to tell, since most of the heads in these realist paintings look like dummies' heads.

One of Pence's most successful artists is Will Wilson, and this is one of his most published images:

If you can't see it, I will tell you that that is ugly in every conceivable way. It is an aesthetic trainwreck, from subject to concept to model to color to composition. Anyone who finds it appealing should immediately be given a Rorschach test, a Zener test, and a test for embedded ticks.

I bring up these other artists to show you what Bo Bartlett is up against in a show at Forum and in the realist market and in the modern world. These are the gallery people and clients he is expected to impress. Personally, I see it as a further virtue that he failed to sell in this market. He would only have to worry if he did appeal to these folks. What a true artist wants is the greatest separation possible from the current realist market and all the degenerate people who inhabit it. Contemporary art, in all its forms—avant garde and realist—is a shallow pool of corruption, imposture, vulgarity, and false claims, and it sinks another level with each passing decade. The true artist and true connoisseur must meet well outside the normal channels, for the normal channels have long ago been coopted by various species of podpeople. A few smaller galleries here and there will have some real art, but at the top end of the market there is nothing but the whine of promotion, the vinegar of ambition, and the stench of greed.

In my opinion, Bartlett should stick to painting the beautiful women and girls around him, and give up trying to compete with the phonies. He should also give up on politics, since it isn't his forte. His wonderful portraits of his wife are worth more than all the fake realism in a hundred galleries put together, and if they don't sell, well, that is the world's loss, not his.

If this paper was useful to you in any way, please consider donating a dollar (or more) to the SAVE THE ARTISTS FOUNDATION. This will allow me to continue writing these "unpublishable" things. Don't be confused by paying Melisa Smith--that is just one of my many noms de plume. If you are a Paypal user, there is no fee; so it might be worth your while to become one. Otherwise they will rob us 33 cents for each transaction.