JB When I look at your current work I'm struck first by the inventiveness of the configurations and by the often disparate elements you juxtapose in your sculptures. They're probably the first things that draw me in, quite apart from any additional excitement a work might generate as an image.
Can you think, looking back from where you are now - call it something like mid career - whether there is any single thread that you can actually trace back to ... even when you were a boy - that if you look back now, you can say ah, yes, there was that thing running all the way through and I didn't realise it was there.
GB Well, my father was the manager of Maples, the old furniture shop, and he used to bring all the white goods crating home for kindling for the fire. I used the timber boxes to make things - all sorts of things - some practical, some not.
JB So there is a history going right back of Geoffrey Bartlett as a maker, a builder of things.
GB Yes. Those early experiences gave me the joy of making. And someone once said that it's very difficult to create sculpture unless you have a love of making. For me it's an essential ingredient - a starting point.
JB The tinkering with materials, the fiddling about with things, the trial and error of putting of one thing against another?
GB Yes, it's very important. It's one of the things a sculptor has which maybe painters don't have. It takes a lot of time to make an object and that time needs to be used productively to allow you the thought processes to make evaluations for future changes to the sculptures that are going to come up.
JB I think that's quite an important point. So the making is more than just the making. It's actually also the process whereby ideas and conclusions are finally reached out of all the things that might suggest themselves. It's in the making itself that the process of thinking and creating actually happens.
GB Yes. I'm not naturally a patient person but I find that my work demands more and more patience from me and the processes are becoming slower and slower. And there was a period in the middle there, between maybe 30 and 40, when I was becoming progressively more irritated about the amount of time I was spending on sculpture. But lately I've become more relaxed about that and I'm actually revelling in the amount of time each process takes. I can notice the benefit to the work and I'm sure it's commensurate with that slow thinking process.
JB What you're doing now you couldn't have conceived of doing when you were 18 when you were at RMIT with your contemporaries, Gus Dall'Ava and Anthony Pryor. Let's go back to that time for a bit. As students you would have been familiar with the work of Baldessin, Upton and Kossatz whose works were labelled "biomorphic" by The Age art critic, Patrick McCaughey, and who, as a group, pretty much had the limelight at the time. What was your perspective on what was happening then?
GB I think that we had this sense that Australian art, and Melbourne art especially, had always had at its core a sense of figuration. So it was very interesting for me when I went to the States on a Harkness Scholarship in '83 to realize just how strong abstraction was - how fully it encompassed the whole art movement in America.
JB Well, the Field exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1968 shifted the spotlight on to abstract colour-field painting as the new kid on the block.
GB Yes. We were looking at those things and being a little bit confused, I suppose, because so many of the artists around us like Jan Senbergs, Les Kossatz and, to a lesser extent, Jock Clutterbuck but certainly George Baldessin were all very figurative and although I respected them enormously my instinct was to turn away - to react against all of that.
I felt that it was too comfortable for me to be a figurative sculptor or to be working solely within a sense of figuration. I was fairly heavily influenced in those early days by the more abstract work of European sculptors like Giacometti, Gonzales and, obviously, David Smith in America.
JB How much of their work had you actually seen?
GB Not a lot until I went to the States. I noticed there was an exhibition of David Smith's at a place called Storm King which is north of New York City and so I got an opportunity to see the work that I had admired so much and yet had only seen a few examples of in the flesh.
There were probably about fifteen sculptures. But coincidentally there was also an exhibition of Henry Moore, an artist I had always dismissed. And what shocked me was that the Moore sculptures completely blew away the Smith sculptures. They left them for dead.
Here I was looking at a man's work that I had completely dismissed from sheer ignorance because I hadn't seen enough of his work and at the same time looking at work I had idolized and being disillusioned by it. Although Smith did, of course, make some beautiful sculptures.
But it didn't dawn on me immediately what the significance of that was. I think it took months or maybe years. What was compelling for me about that experience was that I realized I needed to look beyond my current perspective and give things a chance to influence me, whether or not they were directly connected to my working or thought processes. So that time at Columbia was quite pivotal.
JB Talk about that a bit more. In what way was it pivotal? Clearly being in New York for the first time and having access to the great galleries is obvious but in what other ways? Did you undergo some kind of fundamental conceptual shift at that time?
GB Well, yes. My work went through some radical changes. But the maturation process for a sculptor is quite long and, I think, all the way through that time up to about '83, my work was formative. I'm proud of those works but they were very reliant on sources from other artists.
JB But that's natural. I think it takes a lot longer than people imagine to truly sort out from your influences just what it is that can be uniquely yours.
GB Well, New York gave me, for the first time in my life, two years of uninterrupted time to think about my work. Again, seven days a week. It was a great privilege to have that time. And I found myself being locked away in my studio - even having the opportunity to see absolutely sensational shows and not even going to them. This strong work ethic became entrenched and the development of my sculpture was all-important.
JB Tell me about that development. What changes were happening in the studio?
GB The changes were largely internal. It was like sorting out who Geoffrey Bartlett was out of all this. I was in a very good program - a masters program with thirty other students. I had my own studio and I worked entirely alone. But there would be times when I went to another's studio for a tutorial and I found those pretty demanding because the Americans are different. They are pretty critical. At home in my studio with Tony and Gus we didn't communicate about the value of each other's work. We tended to stay back and mind our own business, as it were, in that Australian way. In America it's entirely different. They would be right in your face with tutorials and some of the students would get dragged through the mud. The thirty students formed themselves into these unofficial camps - the figurative, the post modernist camp and the rest, which I was in. They were quite brutal. I was sort of looked after because I was this antipodean oddity.
JB So you were forced to look very hard and critically at your own work during that time. How did your work physically change during that Harkness period?
GB I returned from America with something like eighteen sculptures which I put in three large crates and brought back. One particular work I did right at the end is an amalgam of all sorts of materials - plywood, steel, paint and concrete. So, yes, I had started using a wide variety of materials which I hadn't before. Previously they had predominately been frontal steel sculptures like The Messenger in the moat at the National Gallery of Victoria which I did just before I left.
JB I do remember the first post-Harkness pieces. They are quite expressionistic. And they employ colour in a painterly way for the first time.
GB Yes, I had been looking at the work of Nancy Graves. She uses paint and colour and does castings of all sorts of organic things like shellfish, pine cones, seeds and so on.
She was a distinct influence at the time. That was the initial impetus for me to use a wider range of materials. And it dawned on me that it's easier to change the aesthetic sometimes by changing the material. If your aesthetic is somewhat bogged down or if your thinking process and ideology are somehow trapped, to escape that I often change the material.
JB Were there other artists who you might think of now as having had some part in the shaping of you and your work?
GB Well, most of them had no direct connection with what I was doing but they contributed to or expanded upon my changing perception of things.
When I was there I saw a show of the original de Kooning maquettes which had a particular hand-made expressive power which I found exhilarating. And there was an impressive show by Jonathon Borofsky
JB Yes. Large wall paintings. Big cut-out figures with hammers etc. Very exciting stuff. I remember visiting his studio once in Venice, California. Interesting man.
GB He had the whole gallery and it was a vast show of paintings and montages and it went on and on. It was on the walls and on the floor.
And that's a good example of what I mean by taking something that hasn't any direct connection with what I do. But I think of the power of that installation and I know it has added in some way to the way I think about my work.
JB But you've never done a piece that I regard as an installation. You still make objects that are then shown in a large interior space.
GB You're absolutely right. But every time I have a show I spend so much time thinking about which works will help me best employ the space. I do see the whole space as a kind of installation. But I'll take certain works out simply to strengthen the installation even though those works may be pieces of quality in their own right.
It's one of the problems sculptors face in that they spend so much time on each work and they feel its loss to the final installation very keenly.
JB Let's talk about how your work developed after your time in the U.S. and about the work you are doing now.
GB The work I was doing when I came back from the States melded the machine-made - the industrial, with the anthropomorphic and organic.
That ambiguity has continued. But in content there is a crossing over ... Donald Judd meets Rogier van der Weyden.
JB And in your recent works there is a fascination with texture and this rather obsessive way of applying texture - often to build ambiguous, alien marine-like forms.
GB They are meant to be ambiguous but still refer to how a creature may appear. For texture I'm using materials from industrial processes - ball bearings, sheet metal with punched out shapes, epoxy resin. There's one piece that has 4,000 ball bearings on top of this little sculpture. You lay them on by applying them with araldite and you place thirty or forty of them on at a time.
Working with this kind of juxtaposition is almost like a fight - a struggle where the elements might beat each other to death and might not survive. But it creates this jewel-like quality in the work and that's intentional, in that I want that seduction to entrance the viewer to look further and explore what I have made beyond that initial seduction. It's like the way a painter might use bright colours or a composition that's compelling. Seduction is always a vital tool for me.
I think the thing that intrigues me most now is the bringing together of apparently dissimilar objects, shapes, images within some sort of cohesive whole. I think that as a young artist there's a natural tendency to want your work to be under control. It can be uncomfortable to feel that you've lost control of the work at any one particular stage. And as I've got a bit older, particularly quite recently, I've become really quite fascinated by playing with sculptures in a way that they, at times, stand outside my control and they almost have their own destiny. I've become comfortable with that and I let the work resolve itself through a variety of different ways.
JB Can you talk more about that?
GB Well, at times I completely lose connection with the piece and risk losing the work totally - where I have to discard it. Sometimes I'll get to a point of complete confusion or a lack of being able to bring it to resolution - to a degree where I just have to put it aside. I'll put a sheet over it. I'll just get it out of my presence for a long period of time.
JB You don't destroy it though?
GB I have, but generally not.
JB O.K. So you'll just leave it somewhere out of sight, out of mind for a while and then come back to it with the freshness of surprise as it were and see what still remains.
GB Exactly. Also you've been able to step away from all things that were important to you at the time you had reached that level of development. You've been able to separate yourself from that and come at it fresh and without the baggage of all the expectations you had initially - even without the baggage of all the time and work that you might have put in it. And you can cut it in half if required and recompose it.
Awakening Desire that I made in 1996 was one of the first works where that happened in a fairly dramatic way. It was a cocoon shape which was housing a portrait and it just didn't sit comfortably with me. It wasn't working in any way, shape or form so I put it aside and came back to it some months later and cut the portrait completely out and basically left the cocoon. I just left that encompassing wrapping - a round shape which was all that was required. But it took a bit of personal courage for me. It takes a degree of time to be able to step away from those initial preconceptions and see it afresh. And I'm doing that more now and with vigour and with more confidence and I'm actually encouraging myself to enter that phase of uncertainty.
JB Allowing yourself to be uncomfortable with some aspect of a work but not worry about it and to see where it might take you.
GB Yes. Because, in a way, as a sculptor, it is the best way I can encourage spontaneity. You can't make the sort of shapes I make spontaneously. But the ideas, the direction of the work can be spontaneous if you allow yourself that freedom to cut and paste.
I find it enjoyable and often quite rewarding artistically to go back, to hop backwards and forwards and revisit things that were unresolved or have not been fully realized.
I may pick up an object within the studio that I have made some time before, or it could even be a lump of wood that I acquired and has particular interest for me, and using that as a starting point. I might then develop the work by building something else to connect with it and then making a montage of other forms to connect with all of them.
I generally don't use found objects, with a few exceptions - like a beautiful piece of gnarled wood which has a particular identity outside of its own existence. I may occasionally cast a found object like a shell, for example, but nearly everything else will be things I've made. I enjoy building things. I'm not so interested in just arranging pre-made objects.
I think part of the reason for me is that in the process of making comes the chance for invention. There are processes - things that happen in the course of a work's production - where things will reveal themselves and you will head off in some other direction.
For me the process happens by being in the space of the studio, surrounded by present work, past work.
Lately I find the most interesting way to work will be to start with one element. It might start with a drawing and I'll work on it throughout the day but it might not have a hold on me ... But one element from that drawing may have resonance and, from that, the sculpture will begin ... almost taking control of me. I'm almost in the hands of a sculpture and the forces it has on me. I'll then suddenly see it differently and it will grow and change and be transformed. And at the end of it, hopefully, I'll have something that surprises me.
JB And in turn surprises the viewer. Your current work is still personal, idiosyncratic and original. Nothing is ever totally original but yours has got that stamp on it.
GB I've got the feeling that in the last ten years, or more specifically the last five, my work has matured to the point where I don't believe it is under the umbrella of any group. What I like to think is that somehow it has emancipated itself from any need to conform to any particular preconception. I feel confident about the way the work's going.
John Buckley was the director of IMA in Brisbane and the inaugural director of ACCA in Melbourne. He is now a Melbourne based art consultant and curator.