Each Friday, our writers review a few choice (New York) gallery openings from the night before.
Bo Bartlett, The American, 2016, Oil on linen, 100 x 82 inches
by Elinor Case-Pethica, Staff writer
These days it is startling to run into old-fashioned high realism. In art schools, it is often met with resistance and the advice to disrupt it with theory-based or abstracted elements. In galleries, realism now seems somewhat out of place. Thus Bo Bartlett’s solo show at Ameringer/McEnry/Yohe of his monumental and almost grandiose realist portraits was unexpected, and of quite a different tune than the other contemporary art in the surrounding Chelsea area.
Bo Bartlett, Easter, 2016, Oil on linen, 120 x 88 inches
Realism is a symptom of a logical and rigorous mind, and Bartlett’s work is no exception. The didactics accompanying each of the paintings are paragraphs long and written by the artist himself, explaining and pointing out references in his work from everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to Waiting for Godot. In today’s age of widespread thoughtlessness, one is hesitant to criticize any creative work for being too intellectual or thorough—yet Bartlett’s work falters at exactly this point. The viewer leaves the gallery feeling that the magician has revealed all his tricks, and too little is left for us to muscle through on our own.
Bo Bartlett, Oligarchy, 2016, Oil on linen, 88 x 120 inches
The best moments of the show were when he departed from his fastidious and linear logic; the alizarin crimson Bartlett used for the shadowy folds of the suit jacket in The American, for example. Why did he choose to leave his red underpainting peeping through rather than painting over it with a more realistic dark blue? The answer certainly isn’t social politics or existentialism, or anything simple enough to spell out in a paragraph on the wall. Great realist painting is about finding a balance between politics and poetry; too little of either and the work begins to steer into dull waters. Bartlett finds this balance in the passages where he appears let go a little, both in terms of his technique (which is, by the way, flawlessly academic) and in terms of his message. He clearly knows how to make beautiful and deeply thoughtful paintings—but he has yet to learn how to make it look effortless.
Bo Bartlett, Halloween, 2016, Oil on linen, 100 x 82 inches
All photos credit of Ameringer | McEnery | Yohe