The American painter Bo Bartlett opened a show at Chelsea’s Miles McEnery Gallery last week that seemed almost supernaturally timed to commemorate the reopening of a country desperate for normalcy and yet very much changed by a year and a half of pandemic.
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There’s an undeniable Norman Rockwell feel to some of the to the works, with their straightforward presentations of scenes from Americana. But a closer look reveals something much more out of Blue Velvet than Happy Birthday, Miss Jones.
What: Bo Bartlett and Light
When: May 13 – June 19, 2021
Where: Miles McEnery Gallery, 511 W 22nd St, New York City
In fact, there’s a quite disturbing vibration underneath these scenes of life on American beaches and other classical summer settings depicted in Bartlett’s massive paintings.
Two of the enormous works seem right out of Jaws. Fishermen who look as though they’re headed to a MAGA rally have captured a great white shark and pose next to their trophy while a golden retriever looks on. Bartlett calls the painting Matinicus, named for the island in Maine where he says that he saw this catch occur, right down to the bloody removal of the beast’s heart.
Another, called Drew Out the Child, shows a man by the ocean holding the unconscious body of what the viewer presumes to be his son. The expression on the man’s face is oddly defiant more than distraught. The image stuck with this reviewer, as it seems to have similarly moved the two well-inked viewers who stared at it for a long while on Thursday night. Another painting, Crowd Scene, features a friendly policeman plucked out of the pre-George Floyd era holding back the crowd on the beach.
speaking of David Lynch and Jaws, it is not surprising to discover that Bartlett actually received a filmmaking degree from NYU after graduating from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For an artist so clearly inspired by both the language of film and the geometry of Norman Rockwell, it was a bit surprising to see him take a bit of a shot at the latter in the show’s handout. Bartlett says, “A good painting is a good question. It is not an answer. Unlike a Norman Rockwell, my paintings most often are not easily read in one hit. They are multi-leveled and open to interpretation.” This is decidedly true about Bartlett’s own works, but just might be selling Rockwell short, as much greater depth and nuance to the old-timer’s work has been revealed.
Bartlett’s paintings make extensive use of gold, tans and browns, and there’s a really flat depth perception, adding to the Lynchian, just off-kilter feel. The same goes for the enormousness of the canvases, allowing some of the figures to be life-sized, and almost feel as though they are standing in the room with you.
The opening was well attended, paired with a colorful but ultimately lesser show, Light, which features several artists curated by Rico Gatson. The painting and tapestries are pretty enough, but cannot raise their voice above the power of Bartlett’s narrative works.
One of Bartlett’s longtime collectors was beaming with pride as the crowd rushed to speak to the artist, now in his mid-60s.
“I’ve been collecting his work since he was a kid painter in Philadelphia. I bought paintings this size for $1200 and now they’re worth $325,000,” the artist’s patron Rita told the Fine Art Globe. It would appear the sizable crowd gathered in Chelsea Thursday evening shared her enthusiasm.