July 28, 2013

Art review: Bo Bartlett and the mysteries of love

The artist's show at Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland commands attention.


ROCKLAND — Without a doubt, Bo Bartlett's "Love and Other Sacraments" at Dowling Walsh Gallery is one of Maine's most interesting gallery shows of 2013.

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“The Big Day” by Bo Bartlett

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“The Promise” by Bo Bartlett


WHAT: Bo Bartlett: "Love and Other Sacraments"

WHERE: Dowling Walsh Gallery, 365 Main St., Rockland

WHEN: Through Sunday complete, then rehung through August

HOURS: Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and by appointment; 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday (today only)

INFO: 596-0084; dowlingwalsh.com

It's a major show by an internationally significant Maine-rooted artist at one of the state's largest and highest profile galleries. But the critical timing of the show's subjects is what makes this combination more than just another heap of superlatives.

Bartlett is what most people think of as a realist painter. He often works on a large scale, and tends to obsessively revisit a few models – most notably his wife, the striking and talented painter Betsy Eby (whose paintings I have long liked more than Bartlett's).

While Bartlett considers himself to follow in the artistic tracks of his mentor-of-sorts, Andrew Wyeth, his works follow a path of finish, scale, self-importance and narrative figuration more in the vein of the muscularly gigantic "Salon machines" that ruled the Louvre throughout the 19th century.

With so many images of women couples and wedding dresses, the underlying content of the show unquestionably rides the sparkling tsunami of same-sex marriage in America.

I have no doubt about the importance of Bartlett's subject, but I am still deeply conflicted about "Love and Other Sacraments."

First of all, Bartlett can be downright annoying. One smaller painting features a Stephen Etnier-like coastal shack seen from the driver's seat of a car – looking over a Mercedes Benz hood ornament. It's hardly subtle.

The bigger off-message – and more cloying – gesture of the show is the series of eight monochrome, blue sky paintings.

These force you to look to the labels for context, and they offer titles such as "September 11, 2012, Wheaton Island" – and, more jarringly, prices of $30,000 each for 18-inch square paintings.

So while Bartlett no doubt wants to represent himself as thinking profound thoughts on important days, these works do more to announce that he's big-time enough that his paintings are priced by size.

Bartlett leaves the clip marks evidencing these were painted en plein air, but this only removes them with certainty from great monochrome painting by the likes of Reinhardt or Malevich (though it reminds me of Yves Klein's brilliantly flippant exhibition, in which the titles of his blue monochromes were their prices). There is a long history of sky studies, so these only rise to the level of original via Bartlett's willingness to cash in on 9/11.

And yet, Bartlett can be gloriously subtle.

His "The Promise" shows two women in sundresses lying together on Maine coastal rocks, their eyes closed to imagine how their new commitment ties the future permanently to the present, and vice versa.

My favorite gesture in the show has these two women (in the style of Ingres) lying together in bed with a foreground bedside table drawer slightly opened, giving a delicious hint of boudoir accoutrements. I also like the play of the title "Verisimilitude" (realistic painting) for two women posing as lovers in bed: They aren't real lesbians, but look just like them. This does have the effect, however, of infecting the show with smug theatricality.

Staging for content and composition is one thing, but Bartlett's theatricality feels like he prefers to fool the audience; the models aren't his muses, but his shills.

One image of Bartlett's wife lying, dressed this time, with the blond model clearly exudes the creepiness that pervades the entire show. But rather than the distant cultural threats recalled by the title "Outside This Room Is War and Terror," the active ingredient is a mistake of painting -- the bodies are recumbent, but the faces seem to have been painted from upright models.

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