Bo Bartlett: "Love and Other Sacraments" at Dowling Walsh Gallery

Bo Bartlett, "Oceans," Oil on linen, 48 x 66 inches
Bo Bartlett's painting Oceans, on view at Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, Maine through July 27th makes a very strong first impression. It allows you -- the viewer -- into a seaside room where two remarkably attractive women consider their options while looking you over in a double-trouble Lacanian gaze. The brunette is Bartlett's wife and muse, painter Betsy Eby who makes a very confident American Olympia in her rather tasteful lingerie. "Is this a day in the life of Bo Bartlett...a man who lives his life as a rooster in a feminist henhouse?" you might wonder.

Bartlett is an aesthetic auto-didact who has looked hard at the works of his American forebears. His canvases of recent years have the marine air and honest brushwork of Winslow Homer, with hints of Wyeth and Eakins -- and even a dash of Salvador Dali -- tossed into the mix. A realist who goes beyond realism, Bartlett is a seeker of life's unseen energies who likes to let the questions evoked by his work multiply. If you don't "get" Bartlett you may find his work excessively earnest, but if his paintings pull you in there is a chance you may find yourself wordless and gaping in their presence. That would please the artist very much.

Bo Bartlett: Photo by Jeff Markowsky
I recently interviewed Bo Bartlett, and asked him about his recent paintings, the role of art in culture, and the upcoming opening of the Bo Bartlett Center.

John Seed Interviews Bo Bartlett

You have said that: "True artists seek the truth at all costs." What kinds of truths are you seeking in your most recent works?

I want to make paintings like I've never seen before. The current show in Maine has two distinct bodies of work. Both represent fields that I feel are somewhat unexplored. The figure paintings, many of my wife, painter Betsy Eby, posing with her friends, are intimate portraits. I know what I'm doing. And I'm well aware that they are dancing on an edge. They could easily be considered decadent, lewd and immoral from the right side of the aisle and patriarchal, misogynistic and sexist from the left.

The paintings address relationship -- what it means to see and be seen -- but they are not objectifications.

It is difficult to paint a portrait: it is difficult to paint a nude figure. It is doubly hard to paint a nude portrait. It's quadrupally hard to paint two nude portraits together, especially when they are real people not hiding behind allegory or symbolism. I expect some reaction, but the paintings aren't meant to goad. The art world is too jaded for them to be scandalous, but we joked that we wanted to make them 'beautiful and scandalous.' We almost used this for the title of the show.

Bo Bartlett, "Outside This Room is War and Terror," Oil on board, 27 x 34 inches
We settled on Love and Other Sacraments, because the paintings aren't about titillation, they aren't about sex... although they may teeter sometimes. They are about tenderness, love, and deep nurturing friendships. One may ask: "How can (or how dare) a somewhat white male address this subject?" but the job of an artist is to trust their feelings and follow their instincts and paint exactly what they want to paint. It's not calculated, doing the politically correct thing; it's not about expressing ones feelings, instead, it's about making the work that you want to see, about making what one thinks the world needs.

Bo Bartlett, "The Light Years," Oil on linen, 80 x 100 inches
Where does your art fit -- and not fit -- in relation to our current culture? 

I think that we are a culture obsessed with guns, violence, dualism, hate-speech, terrorism, war, and death. The paintings are an attempt to create an antidote for this. It is difficult to find honest examples of tenderness or earnest representations of love in contemporary culture. Of course there are love stories in novels and in films -- although Hollywood seems to be stuck in some kind of dysfunctional lower chakra male power rut, filling every multiplex with guns and explosions -- but, in current visual art, love and beauty are taboo.

Beauty is accepted at the base level in the world of fashion and photography, we all glance at the faces on the covers of the magazines in the checkout aisle, longingly or disdainfully, but we need the feminine element exalted in beauty: it was once provided in art by the great Madonnas: no longer. Realness has supplanted beauty as a higher truth in art. The thing about being an artist is, you have to trust your instincts to see what's needed, and trust your ability to provide it.

To be earnest is the greatest taboo in contemporary art, but I want to be earnest, almost to the point of being embarrassed. If its not embarrassing, it's not pushing beyond what's been done before. Look at the history of art. The purpose of Art is to wake us up. We get accustomed to our visual stimulus and we glaze over. Art can reawaken us. It doesn't have to be a new form -- although it can be -- but great art brings us to attention, it can awaken us abruptly with a splash, or it can be a slow revelation, but great art shakes us to the core and makes us see the world differently.

The job of the artist is to be true to their temperament and to keep themselves free. Every artist has a unique ability, personality and gift. Their job is to be true to who they are, true to their DNA, their nature, and their experiences. A kid growing up in the rural South looking at the grass blowing in a field on a sunny afternoon is going to have a different set of priorities and aesthetics than a kid growing up in the inner-city riding subways emblazoned with graffiti, neither ones experience is superior to the other, both are valid, and if they stay true to their experiences their art will reflect their own unique individualities and their art will be original and true.

Bo Bartlett, "Betsy and Alyssa," Oil on panel, 24 x 36 inches
Your wife Betsy appears as a model -- sometimes alone, sometimes by herself, and sometimes with another woman -- in a number of the paintings on view at Dowling Walsh. How important and influential is her presence in your works?

Betsy is my primary subject. Always has been, even before I met her. When a friend of mine first saw her, they said, "That's who you've been painting your whole life!" The recent paintings have been a collaboration; over the past few years Betsy has posed with her friends in New York, Washington and Maine. She often appears in my recent paintings with her good friend, the painter Alyssa Monks. 

Bo Bartlett, "Blue Sky, July 4th 2011," Oil on board, 16 x 16 inches
Eight of your recent paintings are squares of sky. Is it fair to say that they are paradoxical mixes of realism and minimalism? 

Exactly, I'm very excited about them. Similar to the figure paintings in that they are unlike anything I've seen before. Oh, there have always been landscapes and skyscapes, but, I can't think of any realistic paintings of the wide-open blue sky where the subject is the sky itself, no clouds, no tree-tops, or signs of human activity. I like to say it is my One original idea... so far. Of course they are reminiscent of color field paintings. I love Rothko. And certainly, we've enjoyed time under the focused domes of Turrell.

 But, to spend a day outside looking up at the clear blue sky, honestly trying to capture the depth and atmosphere, the humidity, the argon gases, the floating particles, your own viscera, silver tracers, it is a great way to spend a day. Each painting is a specific day and time and place, looking up in one direction into one part of the sky. It is difficult because there is nothing to focus on. I think they have their origins in September 11th, I remember being on the island in Maine, the clearness of the weather on that day. It seemed to put things in perspective.

I feel like they represent everything, the Light as it filters through the darkness of space, the light that gives us life and the dark void of eternity combining to create the optical thin blue veil of our atmosphere that sustains us. When you see the paintings in person, at first they read as a minimalist color field but as you stay with them longer and gaze into them, the space spreads out and back and you get the realistic illusion of the deep blue sky.

Bo Bartlett, "The Big Day," Oil on canvas, 80 x 80 inches
How does the spirit of your friend and mentor Andrew Wyeth continue to influence your choices as an artist? 

Everyday I ask myself: "What would Andy say about this?" He loved to visit my studio and see what I was working on. He was very encouraging: always enthusiastic. But, it wasn't niceties, he was clear eyed and tough. I asked myself everyday what Andy would say about my recent figure paintings. I feel like he would have said, "Wonderful!" He felt like work had to have an "edge." It couldn't be like everything else. It has to be sharp and fresh and cutting, visually and/or conceptually. An artist has to work to find that edge... and not go over it.
Bo Bartlett, "Guest Bed," Oil on board, 18 x 18 inches
In a recent interview, the painter Odd Nerdrum gave this advice to young artists: "If your only goal is to 'find yourself' and be 'original' you will end up in an empty, dark room." Do you agree? 

I know Odd. I like him. He's funny. He says stuff like this. He is serious, deadly serious, but his tongue is firmly planted in his cheek. I like that about him. I visited a lecture he gave at New York Academy once, he proclaimed to the adoring students, "all great artists have curly hair", and they all started looking around at one another, some tufting their locks. We are all original; we can't help but be. The question is: how afraid are we to be ourselves?

Bo Bartlett, "Radio Flyer," Oil on linen, 48 x 66 inches
Tell me briefly what you think of these three artists: Lucien Freud, Odd Nerdrum, and John Currin.

They are not afraid to be themselves. That's what makes them great.

Freud was brave. I admire his courage. A master: a big influence on a lot of artists. It's trickier to talk about living artists.

I admire Odd, he's paved his own way.

Currin is the only one of these artists who is younger than me. I appreciate that he has kept a certain part of the conversation attentive to what might be termed representational figurative work. He was there as it regained momentum. He's interesting though in relationship to my recent figurative pieces, he did that series of sex paintings. Those were inspired by porn though. But, they addressed it head on: they didn't beat around the bush.

But, he's not really a realist. Some people assume that there are camps and because of how my work looks that I must be in one. I'm not in a camp. I look at everything. But, there isn't much 'realism' that I like. I don't think of myself as a 'realist'. It is such a worn out idea; we are way past such labels. Work is either good or it's not.

Bo Bartlett, "The Promise," Oil on linen, 48 x 82 inches
How important is the element of mystery in your work?

Open-ended narrative is important. My work isn't trying to answer anything. Nor is it specifically posing a question. Words pigeonhole, but I know that it's psychological and archetypal and attempts to delve into the mystery of this life. The paintings are sort of visual metaphors or "Mise en scenes" for what it feels like to be alive.

Bo Bartlett, "Croquet Season," Oil on board, 16 x 16 inches
Congratulations on the upcoming opening of the Bo Bartlett Center at Columbus State University. What are some of your hopes for the Center? 

Thank you: it's a very exciting time. The director David Houston came from Crystal Bridges. We'll have an active visiting artist program and exhibition schedule. Many artists have agreed to teach and exhibit already. There will be 18,000 square feet of exhibition space, designed by internationally renowned Seattle architect Tom Kundig.

The Center will contain a permanent exhibition of my large paintings, drawings and sketchbooks and journals. There will be rotating exhibitions by the visiting artists as well as travelling museum exhibitions. The Center will also house a growing archive of artists' sketchbooks, journals, photographs and ephemera. The Center will be an aesthetic experience and it will also have social outreach into the community and beyond. The Center will help pick up the slack for Art programs that may have been cut in public schools. We intend to offer art practice, not so much therapy or instruction as experiential, to the homeless, inmates in prison, and soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. I believe in Art - The Center will reflect this - I believe in the power of Art to transform our lives - and our world.

Bo Bartlett: "Love and Other Sacraments"
July 5 - 27, 2013
Dowling Walsh Gallery
365 Main Street
PO Box 524
Rockland, Maine 04841
Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and Sunday and Monday by appointment.