Sculptor Geoffrey Bartlett's thought-provoking works had their genesis in an imaginative and productive childhood. Louise Bellamy reports.
I never want to stay with the one material for too long; I don't want my art to become easy.
Cluttered with steel, lead and copper sheeting, tree trunks, planks of wood, tools, a crane, hydraulic levers and chains, the studio of Melbourne sculptor Geoffrey Bartlett looks like an amalgam of farmyard and factory.
Here, originally a slipper factory in the hub of industrial Collingwood, Bartlett, 52, uses raw and man-made materials - the former to represent the natural environment, the latter to ape the industrialised world, which he welds and bolts together to create uniform images out of disparate parts.
Bartlett's distinctive works are exhibited in public and private spaces in Melbourne, interstate and overseas. His Messenger, a vigorous eight-metre-plus work in stainless and painted steel, was unveiled in the National Gallery of Victoria's moat in 1983 and recently relocated to the rear sculpture garden. Celebrated at the time for its innovative form and influenced by the American Expressionist artist David Smith, this two-dimensional piece seems light years removed from the voluptuous, three-dimensional forms he now creates.
Bartlett's father often bought home wooden cartons used to transport whitegoods. The sculptor - who has been a finalist twice in both the prestigious Helen Lempriere National Sculpture and National Sculpture awards - remembers making objects, including billycarts and a cubby house, out of the wood all through his childhood.
He studied at RMIT, shared a Fitzroy studio with sculptors Augustine Dalli'Ava and Anthony Pryor, and, in 1984, went to Columbia University, New York, on a Harkness Fellowship - the only Australian sculptor to do so. Since returning, he has held many academic teaching positions, including senior lecturer in sculpture at Monash University, and has worked as a full-time sculptor for eight years.
His ability "to work the metal like flesh" began in New York. Using a second-hand blacksmith's anvil and a panel beater's hammer that has no handle ("so I can hold it in my palm") Bartlett moulds and shapes metal materials for weeks on end. He works some of the metal so hard it looks like paper-thin skin; other material remains distinctly mechanical.
Each work begins with macquettes - steel models, over which he clads sheets of steel, lead or copper. Then he builds armatures and clads them to size.
"I never want to stay with the one material for too long; I don't want my art to become easy; I don't want my ideology to become complacent," he says.
It was in New York that seminal works including Two Points of View and Lessons in Gravity, now housed in Canberra at Parliament House, were made. Beginning as drawings of bow and arrow-like forms, which, Bartlett says, "suggested pent-up reservoirs of energy with the capacity to thrust forward", the four-metre-high sculptures comprise steel sheets cut and hammered and rolled into shape. Some pieces are thick, others thin slivers, which teeter at right angles to the curved bases and appear too fragile to support them.
"The nuts and bolts are very visible, part of the aesthetic, part of the process I want the observer to understand."
More recently, Bartlett has incorporated found objects into his work. Silver Cloud, on the walkway at the Burwood campus of Deakin University, includes a 1.5-tonne piece of river redgum he found at Moyston in the Grampians. Moving the timber into his studio with a crane, it remained there for four years because Bartlett was initially intimidated by its form. "It had such intrinsic beauty, and for a long time I thought I should change that, but finally, I realised I should leave it alone and build off it," he says.
Using galvanised steel hammered and shaped "into a serpent that curved", he drilled screws to interlock the timber and metal. "The natural form of the redgum becomes a fabricated man-made structure, the process of which can be followed rhythmically," he says.
He's also exhibiting smaller works, taking the interconnections between organic and fabricated materials a step further. Double Self Portrait features two human-like heads with small horns - one made of hammered lead, the other from 4000 ball bearings impregnated in polyester resin with copper nails. The horns are a reference to Picasso's bull images, "which are very potent human/anthropomorphic works"; the ball bearings are a reference to the uniform patterns of shells. "The ball bearings seem uniform, too, but their placement is, in fact, random, arbitrary."
Whales in a Red Sea has a bronze form taking the shape of a whale, encased in a cast-aluminium box.
Bartlett still has the toolbox his late father let him use to make those billycarts. And he's still hammering away.
New Works was at Bendigo St Gallery, Prahran, July 2004.