It is no wonder that sea shells dot Geoffrey Bartlett's Collingwood studio. Their calcified forms, the encrusted shapes of once-living creatures, stand as constant reminders of the creative wonders of natural process. Bartlett's sculptures are wrought with the sensitive artistic grasp of just such natural biological formations and the works' soft patinations, worn surfaces and lyrical shapes are always formed and informed by a keen sense of the appropriate and an artistic respect for materials. This is why Bartlett holds a special personal fondness for the eroded shapes and flowing beauty of the Elgin Marbles in London's British Museum and the Niké, the Victory of Samothrace, in the Louvre Museum in Paris. This is also why his sculptures so often have the peculiar aesthetic appropriateness of a mussel on a pier or a barnacle on a board. It is this aptness that lends to the forms of his constructed sculptures their powerful animistic and biological suggestions. No contemporary sculptor in Australia is so attuned to the artistic messages of Nature.
Once we grasp these understated visual connections we come to understand why so many of Bartlett's sculptures sit so well anywhere and look so striking in the landscape, particularly settings with a marine location or outlook. In these contexts the sculptures' beacon-like qualities shine out and the works manage to evoke and encapsulate a host of natural and oceanic associations. In each of his recent sculptures an inner life of observations and creative associations is conceptualised, articulated and expressed through an appropriate medium and method.
In Deakin University's exhibition of Bartlett's sculptures of the last decade what we see is the carefully constructed surfaces of inner impulses. Their exterior forms seem to mimic interior intentions. This is why the positive visual energy of the sculptures' billowing and delicate skins seems to emanate from an inner core. Bartlett's works seem not only to pulsate with their own inner life, but also to echo the individual processes of their manufacture. His careful surface treatments constantly surprise us with closely considered collations of various materials, collisions of surfaces, clashes of technique and points of contact that are refreshingly unique. In them we can't help being reminded of the natural clash, inner growth and strangely apt bindings and adaptive qualities of Nature herself.
No other Australian sculptor uses so many techniques in the development of a single work. In Bartlett's sculptures we are liable to find welding, soldering, plating, casting, carving, modelling, riveting, bolting and lamination all harmoniously combined in the making of the one sculpture. These are not the amateur works of a jack-of-all-trades, but more like the musical creations of a composer who is an expert player of many instruments and who, importantly, does not treat a violin as he or she would a piano - of course, each instrument of artistic expression demands its own specific handling. Similarly, in Bartlett's sculptures each substance and technique is given its inherent due - the effects of one set of tools on the one material are not imitated by the working of another set of tools upon another material.
Bartlett's favourite tools are surprisingly simple: a second-hand blacksmith's anvil and a panel-beater's hammer with its handle cut off so that it can be held in the palm. The unexpected simplicity of these means of production reveals something of Bartlett's direct "hands on" approach to the making of sculpture. Techniques of fabrication are not disguised and it is as though no material in Bartlett's sculptures is strained beyond its willing limits. The sculptures are not "muscular" in the way many of his contemporaries' works are; they are not forced by sheer will and do not rely upon overt gesture, showy grandeur, a "look at me" brashness, or mere size, for their effects. By comparison, all of Bartlett's sculptures are refreshingly understated and unpretentious - these are inherent parts of their lasting appeal. Some of this sensitivity to various sculptural techniques and physical materials may be attributed to Bartlett's technical approach. His sculptures are constructed as individual parts which are subsequently fitted into a whole, rather than as separate masses that must be house-trained or forced into submission. Parts are finished as wholes and wholes are constructed of parts. Bartlett's interlocked sculptures are unique in that each part of his constructions is completed as though it could stand on its own: it bears its own aesthetic weight comfortably. The subsequent visual power of his sculptures is unleashed when these carefully worked separate parts are then fastened into surprising fabrications.
As an undergraduate, Bartlett was enrolled in the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology's Sculpture course, from which he graduated in 1973. At the time the Sculpture Department at RMIT was staffed with outstanding artists: George Baldessin, Vincas Jomantas and Teisutis Zikaras. Later Bartlett undertook the post-graduate Fellowship Diploma of Art there and graduated in 1976. It was at RMIT that he met his life-long friends, Augustine Dall'Ava and Anthony Pryor, quickly developed technical expertise, attended art history lectures given by Margaret Plant and started on a path toward making a serious contribution to his discipline. Whilst still a post-graduate student, Bartlett participated in his first solo exhibition in 1976 at Melbourne University's Ewing Gallery. Since that time he has completed a Master of Fine Arts degree at Columbia University in New York, held fifteen major solo exhibitions in seven major cities, participated in twenty-four group exhibitions, won twelve awards and commissions and became the first person to be awarded an Australia Council Residency at the Arthur Boyd Studio in Tuscany, Italy. Furthermore, his work is held in most of Australia's major private, corporate and university collections.
Bartlett's innovative approaches of accretion, placement, construction and connection seem to redouble the visual effects of the individual parts of his sculptures. By way of explanation, a simple mussel shell is beautiful on its own but its inherent beauty is magnified when massed or locked onto a pier. Its forms and qualities are then made more prominent by a directly engaged contrast in shape, surface, material and texture. In similar fashion the undoubted visual impact of Bartlett's sculptures relies upon, and ingeniously utilises, the aesthetic effects of a naturally attractive and limpet-like link with an opposing material.
This is not to suggest that any of the sculptures are merely static re-fabrications of the natural world. On the contrary, they seem to rejoice in that natural world rather than simply replicate it. They are not lifeless and fossilised forms - they are not limp or mimetic reconstructions of Nature's remnants. No karaoke show here - no pretentious straining after the effects of the original - these are Bartlett's own melodies. They swirl and unfurl before our eyes and pivot upon their points of contact. Like active pupae or cocoons hanging on branches they seem to contain their own hidden energy.
Bartlett's sculptures often focus upon the ends of lines, junctions of forms, visual connections and points of material contact. In this sense his work often echoes his admiration of the way Michelangelo, in his famous Creation of Adam fresco in Rome's Sistine Chapel, narrowed compositional attention upon the contact of two massed forms. 1 In Michelangelo's fresco the finger of God is about to touch the finger of Adam in life-giving transmission and the two large forms pivot upon and are given meaning by this cleverly focussed visual stress. Similarly the visual power of Bartlett's sculptures hinge upon points of compositional convergence, various physical textures, surface treatments, massed forms and material qualities. Bartlett's constructed and connected sculptures embody a sense of visual surprise and each displays the effects of a palpable joy in the working, placement and joining of various opposing materials. It is the sophisticated finesse of these connections that gives his sculptures their uncanny aptness - consequently, an energy seems to pass between them.
It is a little-known fact that Bartlett harbours a long fascination with industrial and engineering devices of all sorts. He has a fondness for mechanical workshops, foundries and old hardware shops. He also loves old and well made mechanical tools and, for obvious reasons, his late father's tool box is a prized possession. His large studio not only contains many lifting cranes and hydraulic levers, as might be expected of a professional sculptor, but also holds well-thumbed old textbooks on engineering principles and structures. In his inclusive mind this private fascination with mechanical matters focusses upon their concealed energy and the way engineering principles grip and grapple with the economical and efficient use of linkages, gravity and the tensile strength of materials.
This unusual interest has an established and well-applied legacy. This may be most clearly seen implemented in Bartlett's large work Counterweight for Counterweight of 1979 with its formal emphasis upon the sculptural potential of belts, pulleys, cogs, flywheels and braces. All these various components have a particular aptness of physical form, often gained through careful and incremental refinements, which cannot help but be conceptually satisfying and visually interesting to an artist. Bartlett's sculptures are decidedly Australian works which are motivated by poetically grounded concerns - his early creations speak of the land and are tinged with a sense of nostalgia for antiquated wool baling presses, shearing machines and cherished old equipment - all of them sculpturally invested within a localised ethos. Nostalgic feelings suffuse this agricultural detritus and pervade his sophisticatedly reconfigured early works. The rough-hewn charm of the sculptures speaks of "home-grown" fencing-wire ingenuity, a "make-do" history and a particular historical and pioneering relevance.
In Bartlett's justly famous commissioned work, Messenger of 1983, installed in the moat of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, we can sense the imprisoned power of his personal vision of hinged energy. There, surrounded by water and enlivened by its ever changing shadows, the flat masses of his sculptural forms seem ready to spring into action with the flick of an imaginary switch, like some old farm pump. Such is the coiled visual power of his early sculptures that, despite their massed and solid forms, they seem ready to self activate at the merest touch.
If we turn our attention again to Counterweight for Counterweight and compare it with his later associated work Counterweight for Counterweight No. 2 of 1985, we can see the developmental progress of an important transition. In the earlier work the rectilinear forms are more regular, contained, tiered and frontal in focus. Six years later the sculpture of the same name betrays a much more lyrical intention. In the later work, with its dominant crane-like shape, arcs replace straight lines, the sculpture more clearly projects into space, symmetry is swapped for asymmetry, visual balance is precarious, frontality is replaced by three-dimension-ality and the placement of the sculpture's active forms invites inspection from all sides. A confidently expressed artistic shift took place in the six years separating these two sculptures: one seems to move, the other seems to dance!
What we so often see in Bartlett's work are curiously animated and original amalgamations of natural form and material structure. Bartlett works alone and belongs to no group. The sculptures have no overt message, no political undertones and make no compromising concess-ions to intellectual fashions. They often seem to delicately swing and hang; their natural forms trace a visual pendulum and the eye takes in and enjoys the arcs of arrested movement. Put simply, in Bartlett's sculptures of the last decade the natural and the mechanical, two seemingly mortal enemies, are coaxed into artistic cooperation.
The most elegant of these newly enlivened sculptural configurations is Bartlett's eight-metre tall Beacon of 1998, on the waterfront at Newcastle. It is a monumental work whose simplified metal elements seem poised to swing on its vertical axis and be ratcheted back on its arced stainless steel arm. What we are presented with is a sculptural blend of maritime forms, such as the sail and the net, with the mechanical implications of boats' winches and gears. The navigational qualities of this impressive work, with its breezy suggestions of windsock-like animated movement, are also related to the rich appeal of Bartlett's Constellation collaboration with the sculptor Bruce Armstrong in 1997.
This public commission, on the bank of the Yarra River, captures the natural suggestions of clouds, the billowing of sails, rigging, the movement of wind vanes and the associations of ships' figureheads. In this large work, his first ever sculptural collaboration, Bartlett's jutting copper and stainless steel forms seem ever ready to pivot and point in their maritime location. The group of five angled sculptures splay outward from a central column which displays the prow of a boat, the only symmetrical piece in the group. Both the outermost elements curve inward as though to bookend the thematically related arrangement, thus concentrating visual attention inwards upon the central boat form, itself a hint of the marine connections stipulated in the commission brief. All of this, once again, is done in ways which successfully link the mechanical with the natural and marry the sea with the land.
It may be easily forgotten that Nature does not compromise, but optimises. Nature's forms are not laboured and made to fit; they are not shoehorned into existence - on the contrary, they exist as optimal extensions of their materials and surroundings. Bartlett was, he says, first made fully aware of the importance and sculptural potential of these thought-provoking attributes at the same time that he was astounded by the artistic significance of Henry Moore. These thoughts and reassessments occurred to Bartlett in September 1983 when he visited the famous Storm King Art Center at Mountainville in New York. On display in this garden park are over 120 works by European and American sculptors. Bartlett also met the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who said that a visit to the Storm King Art Center "expands the eye". Bartlett experienced just this at the Storm King Art Center with its unique offerings, one of the many benefits of his Harkness Fellowship at Columbia University in New York, which enabled him to learn from many direct examples of sculptural placement. Significantly, Bartlett is the first sculptor to have been awarded the prestigious Harkness Fellowship and the first Australian sculptor to be awarded a MFA degree from Columbia University.
During his two years in New York Bartlett visited the Australian sculptor Clement Meadmore and worked in daily contact with the sculptor, Roy Gussow. Gussow, who studied under Lászlô Moholy-Nagy and Alexander Archipenko, did much to introduce Bartlett to a new sculptural milieu. Significantly, Luise Kaish, Head of the Sculpture Department at Columbia University was so impressed with the quality of Bartlett's post-graduate work that she presented him with the Master's Student Award for Outstanding Performance. His work during this New York period, from 1983 to 1985, was enriched by personal study and close contact with the many artistic holdings of that well-endowed metropolis. He made the most of this opportunity to see the work of international masters such as Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Jacques Lipchitz, Julio González and Constanin Brancusi.
Thereafter a new complex refinement, and consequently a new sculptural potency, crept into Bartlett's work. No doubt the sculptural convictions of Moore struck an inner chord and made their personal influence felt. The following words summarise some aspects of this impact:
It is only when the sculptor works direct, where there is an active relationship with his material, that the material can take part in the shaping of an idea ... Organic forms, though they may be symmetrical in their main disposition, in their reaction to environment, growth and gravity, lose their perfect symmetry. ... Sculpture fully in the round has no two points of view alike. The desire for form completely realized is connected with asymmetry. For a symmetrical mass being the same form both sides cannot have more than half the number of different points of view possessed by a non-symmetrical mass.2 (my italics)
These words by Moore may be instructively related to Bartlett's very similar observations on the visual language of sculpture fifty years later in New York:
Although two-dimensional work is perfectly valid, to perpetually ignore the aspect of sculpture in the round is to ignore the most powerful tool the sculptor has available. In the years previous to those spent in New York, I had worked up preliminary ideas by drawing, and, in retrospect, I have realised that this two-dimensionality, coupled with the relative inflexibility of large works, brought about an inevitable frontality. Irrespective of whether the final sculpture was large or small, I felt that the repeated frontality of earlier works could best be overcome with maquette studies. In this way the conceptual development would arise out of a three-dimensional, and not essentially a frontal, format.3 (my italics)
After this formative period in New York Bartlett's sculptures, previously more concerned with freeze-frame action within frieze-framed compositions, took a turbo-charged spin on a new road. It was as though his imagination was fired up by a new and richer fuel. Some of the refined development of Bartlett's new sculptures may be seen in the seventeen turning-point works that he completed whilst in New York. Three of these sculptures (Lessons in Gravity, Two Points of View, Spike) were selected for the collection of Parliament House in Canberra, one is installed at the McClelland Gallery at Langwarrin, whilst most of the other thirteen works were rapidly sold to various private collectors. Bartlett describes these sculptures as having a "projectile" quality as though they exploded from a central energy. 4
It was my concern to prevent the sculpture revolving around a central core. ... Sculpture has the potential to intimidate and threaten the spectator, and this, well used, is a powerful tool. ... By destabilization, sculpture may approach more directly the sense of spirit and power that good sculpture must possess. This destabilization of form is largely acquired by throwing the base away from its balance point, so that the work is exploding rather than imploding. The movement is toward the surrounding space and not that which the sculpture occupies. Much of this can be achieved by re-addressing formal concerns, attempting compositionally to destroy balance and our natural tendency to establish a notion of the core or nucleus. It is this core that generates stability, so that by throwing the body of the work seemingly away from the center of gravity, destabilisation results. If successful, the work will oppose any desire to establish order centred around balance; similarly, any notion of it being static and immovable are likewise countered. Coupled with my desire to destabilise the sculpture arose a form referred to earlier as the shield and bow motif. Initially it was intended that it would imply a bow-like form and not that of a shield, the implication being that the body of the sculpture applies force to this form and may at any moment be flung, as if a projectile, away from its center of gravity. In this way I intended a create a notion of the sculpture's potential for movement or displacement by implication. ... I attempted ... to counter the predictable by a sense of uneasiness and disparity. ... For the artist to realise the full potential of any work it may appear that the aesthetic at times comes too close to destruction and irretrievability.5 (my italics)
Many of Bartlett's mid-career sculptures are painted and all display a new, confidently grasped and more emphatic use of three-dimensionality. The most pertinent example of the dynamic potential of this new three-dimensionality is The Rise of the Flowering Plants of 1984 (in the collection of the McClelland Gallery). Its three-dimensionality is clearly evident, but its newly-charged emphasis is highlighted from a side view. Such is the sculpture's compositional variety that it seems unrecognisable at every turn - it could easily be mistaken for another work entirely. An important step had been taken and Bartlett's more emphatically three-dimensional sculptures thereafter came to embody new formal characteristics: incorporation of legs and tripods, animated use of jutting forms, imbalance of shapes, appearance of bow and shield forms, the addition of the plinth and the use of a shifted centre of gravity.
Some of the invigoration of Bartlett's latest work, and the abiding seriousness of his sculptural purpose, may also be attributed to the accumulated benefits of his extensive international travel over the past twenty-four years, which he has undertaken not as a tourist, but as an artist eager to sharpen his vision and take in the lessons of both recent and ancient art history.
In 1977 Bartlett joined Pryor and Dall'Ava on a three-week stay in Japan where he became fascinated with the architectural details of Japanese buildings. Many of these buildings flowed through a gradation of forms and materials that he found intriguing, arising from the earth through the materials of stone, timber, bronze, metal, ceramics, slate and thatching in ways which are unfamiliar to the Western eye. All these miscellaneous materials were fashioned and combined to harmonise in notable ways; the incidence of bronze bells, gongs, metal bands on posts, caps on columns, shrines and votive objects only enriched their visual appeal. Significantly, Bartlett's photographs of this trip show many examples of common Japanese garden lanterns - the almost totemic way their variously textured stone forms are raised from the ground made an important and long-lasting impression. The uncomplicated transitional relationship between base and elevation in these humble objects is rarely given such recognition. To him their sense of place was remarkable and their sculptural properties were intriguing.
Given this recognition, one can readily understand Bartlett's subsequent admiration of the famous Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, designed by Antoní Gaudí. He was overcome by the cathedral's two jutting towers, their Bower bird-like accumulation of materials and their transformation from the earth. Gaudí's cathedral was both solid and precarious and had the "projectile" quality that Bartlett came to recognise in his New York work from 1983 to 1985. Bartlett was also stirred by the way Gaudí had been able to combine architectural structure with so many layers of accretion - for him, it was a sculptural opera. Later in Italy the Cathedral of Pisa and its famous leaning tower also made a memorable impression - the solid forms of the cathedral seemed magnified in comparison with its precariously angled bell-tower - and there was something magical in the placement of these two massive forms, set against each other in an uncluttered landscape, which stayed in Bartlett's memory.
After these trips to Japan, Spain and Italy, Bartlett went on to England, the Netherlands, France and Germany, to catch up on the latest art exhibitions. Later, in 1981, the three friends, Bartlett, Pryor and Dall'Ava, embarked upon a trip to the United States solely to take in collections of art works. This was later followed by a brief sojourn in India in 1989 where, like Japan, wonderment was to be found in the seemingly mundane and in "non-artistic" locations. Of course, during these travels to Japan, Europe, America and India, during the sixteen-year period from 1977 to 1993, Bartlett was impressed with many things. The way these things then influenced his thought and his sculptural work is, even on his own personal admission, quite uncanny. Culturally rich trips, such as Bartlett's, are often glimpsed through a haze of associative thoughts and images which are later patinated by time and memory. When we burnish these memories we know that they have had beneficial effects but are unsure of their precise nature; they seem to act as nutrients for the mind, yet like nutrients for the body we may be uncertain as to exactly which parts they have nourished.
For instance, Bartlett twice went to considerable trouble to visit Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England but is unsure of its exact attraction. We may confidently guess that Stonehenge's large dolmen forms, its sense of presence, ancient eroded stone shapes and aesthetic magnetism go some way toward explaining his inexplicable admiration. There was something about the ways Stonehenge's strange stone groupings evolve from the ground that stays with Bartlett to this day. He also remembers being surprised and deeply moved by the delicate beauty of bas-relief sculptures in London. If one recalls the British Museum's holdings of Egyptian tomb relief art or Assyrian wall reliefs one can share in some of Bartlett's admiration. These reliefs show subtly graduated scenes whose forms are clearly delineated by remarkably shallow modelling and an acute awareness of the effects of slanting shadows. Their softly delineated forms seem to alternately arise and retreat from the flat surfaces of their stone grounds. The consequent dynamic visual movement of these bas-reliefs animates their surfaces in almost mesmeric ways - ways which are reflected in Bartlett's later beaten lead works.
The present exhibition clearly encapsulates the aesthetic results of many of these sorts of memorable and artistically rich experiences. His sculptures do not attempt to illustrate, imitate or relive these artistic experiences but to re-interpret and enlarge upon their aesthetic effects. Put simply, in his work of the last decade the language of sculpture is extended rather than recited. All of Bartlett's recent sculptures are conceived with an acute consciousness of the lessons of historical precedent, worked with a mature incorporation of his own sculptural forms and expressed with the inflections of his own distinctive use of the visual language of contemporary sculpture.
How then are these attributes realised in practice? One need only turn to Bartlett's lead-encased work Self Portrait (In Relief) of 2000 to sense the effects of this aesthetic extension. This contains a palpable technical link to his earlier admiration of historical bas-relief works in that this impressive sculpture contains their shallow-contoured method and demonstrates an applied awareness of the delineating effects of slanting shadows. However, Bartlett's lead wall piece was prompted not only by the beauty and technique of ancient bas-reliefs but also by a sculptural interest in how little manipulation was actually needed to suggest the undulating forms. The understated aesthetic appeal of this work essentially rests upon just such an economy of expression.
Since 1996 Bartlett has been drawn to the use of lead: an underrated and humble metal whose highly malleable properties make it well suited to the expression of the most subtle gradations of shape. Lead's dull sheen and dark colour absorb light greedily and therefore, as in this work, it throws into relief any alteration of its shape. The lead relief work reflects its own inner sub-structure and the sculpture's graceful lines of brads and joins, like aircraft panels, help to delineate its hidden construction. Such is the delicacy of its handling that the heavy lead sheet covering this work rests lightly over its inner forms with the warmth of a grey blanket. Its subtle treatment and hand-beaten surfaces lead the eye gently around its accentuated facial shapes. Despite its size, this sculpture suggests rather than shouts and its tactile surface modulations, like the worn basalt banks of beaches, are highly sensual and deeply evocative.
An evocative quality of a similar order pervades Bartlett's related three-dimensional lead-encased head study entitled Self Portrait of 1996. The pebble-smooth qualities of the lead skin of the quizzically upturned head contrast with the sharp wooden forms of its base. This quality of material transition is also evident in Bartlett's Self Portrait 2 of 2000, with its visually melded conglomeration of four disparate substances. The delicate shift and upward movement, from polished wood and painted timber to beaten lead, copper nails and bronze, in these two busts is informed by the sensitive passage of materials often found in Japanese architectural columns - once recognised, their indirect reflection of these distant and foreign sources is remarkable.
The same uncluttered appeal also reverberates through Awakening Desire. The uppermost beaten lead and copper nailed form of this 1996 work swirls above a dark and almost totemic wooden base. The two large separate forms meet midway at a bronze element which acts as a visual intermediary between the sculpture's two distinctly unlike shapes. The hemispherical bronze shape allows for a visual transition between the fluidity of the lead form and the solidity of the wooden base. The two large masses of the sculpture impinge upon the central element in ways which emphasise their precarious link - few passages of sculptural form are so carefully trained. The seeming lightness of the sculpture's large lead form only adds to its sense of instability. The abalone shell-shaped lead form, like a gigantic thought balloon, hovers above its solemn wooden base as though to awaken its dormant senses. The dependent relationship between these two different forms is almost metaphoric and the evocation of male and female attributes is all but inescapable. The fragility of the balance of these two suggestive forms is both delicate and tense. Bartlett has always enjoyed this sort of flirtation with precariousness - the forms seem so delicately balanced as to invite collapse with the slightest mishandling. The solid timber seems to dream its desire whilst the free form of the lead element seeks to be grounded - once again, it is the focussed convergence of carefully chosen forms that gives this sculpture its uncannily evocative power.
Bartlett's visually acute regard for the formal characteristics of sculpture is perhaps nowhere more evident than in his lead and copper piece entitled Pear Bridge of 1998 - 2000. The large lead pear form, with its swelling and voluptuous shapes, possesses and projects its own lyricism well and is sufficient on its own. However, when set up against the hard and angular shapes of the copper form, the result is a play of opposing associations which highlights the respective qualities of each individual component. The internal edge of the lead form lines up against the conical shape of the copper elbow in a way which emphasises their differences and incorporates the negative shape between them. The whole central composition of the sculpture is held up to us on a narrow lead - encased and visually integrated plinth, as if to align our vision for a greater appreciation of its strangely collated components. In a master stroke of juxtaposition Bartlett almost shocks us into a sensual appreciation of the disjunctive shapes of the sculpture, the physical beauty of its curiously related forms and its consciously restricted choice of materials. The simple equation of the disparate parts presents us with a blended sculptural whole of unusually satisfying elegance.
This elegant dance of compositional elements is an important characteristic of Bartlett's recent sculptures. It is most obvious in his sculpture Girl in the Wind of 1999, constructed of bronze, lead and ironbark wood. The sculpture's fluid upper forms rest upon a large monolith-like wooden base which offsets and emphasises the swirling shapes of its bronze and lead components. In this, perhaps Bartlett's least abstracted and most figurative recent work, we can see how an elegant articulation of opposing materials and associations is instrumental to his sculptural process. His plated bronze, ironbark and oregon wood sculpture, High Wire Gymnast of 1999, is also typical of this form of constrained and disciplined elegance. In it we see a compacted mass of fluid and almost stroboscopically realised metal forms placed atop an elevated wooden plinth. The graceful callisthenic movements of a gymnast are lyrically captured in this abstract orb - like component. The height and solidity of the sculpture's column base seem to make the top form more pronounced in its delicacy and the work captures and reflects the suggestions of its title with ease. Another sculpture that does this is Dancer of 1999. In this work of bronze, lead and ironbark wood we are presented with sculpturally realised associations of billowing and lithe movement in a way which is both precarious and balanced. This is the essence of dancers' skills: just as they seem about to tip, they amaze us with their ability to pivot into another graceful movement. The elegance of Bartlett's metal forms is predicated upon just such an observation.
The most accomplished of his plinth-based series of sculptures is the large lead, copper and tin work, Nautilus of 2001. It stands as emphatic as a question mark; its lead-sheathed form curls before our eyes and is attached to its vertical base like the leg of a mollusc. The undeniable grace of this curving form is accentuated by its narrow link to a copper-plated lead base which holds it up like a reliquary. Once again, Bartlett's sculpture is enlivened by a complex play of associations: fragility against solidity, wood against metal, open form against closed form, line against mass, weight against lightness, crown against base and rigidity against grace.
This visually engaging play of formal sculptural qualities is also evident in Bartlett's related works of aluminium and oregon wood, Three Dancers of 1999 and Acrobat of 2000. In these two sculptures the fluidity of the metal is more pronounced; the bulging and curving shapes suggest a graceful physicality and, like his earlier works, they are held up by wooden forms, this time with the additions of lattice ladder shapes acutely suggestive of precarious height. In these works we can see some hint of the "projectile" quality that Bartlett so admired in the architecture of Gaudi. Here however, this "projectile" quality underscores the held-aloft, airy associations of these iconic works. The same may well be said of Bartlett's Empire State sculpture of 1998. Its crowning lead and bronze forms stand as a testimony to the Art Deco interiors of the Empire State building in New York - a building silhouetted in miniature form in the sculpture's upper section. The hierarchical progression of materials, from the blocked forms of the wood to the open forms of the metal, moves upward from the solid to the ethereal. These sculptures rise from their foundations like totems; that is, as sculptural tributes to their carefully observed artistic sources.
Bartlett's work of the mid-nineties is often based upon three-dimensional reinterpretations of the intaglio prints he completed at Columbia University. The difficulty of the transition from two-dimensional conception to three-dimensional realization is nowhere evident, indicating that his earlier prints were conceived with an awareness of their sculptural potential. The first of these sculptures which revisit his earlier ideas, all based upon the theme of Woman, is Faith (Woman 5) of 1995. It stands on two graceful legs which support a table-like plateau above which rises an insect-like mandible. The whole sculpture is both vaguely threatening and enticing; it stands with the silent menace of a trap. Here he has skilfully reinterpreted a long established psychological theme in European art - that of the fatal charm of Woman. The sobering qualities which seem subsumed within this work are not shared by Bartlett's other sculptural excursions into the theme of Woman. His sculpture Woman Study I of 1995 is much more light hearted, more visceral than psychological in its associations. The forms of copper, steel and mixed media swirl around a central armature. They depend upon this central core in the same way that bodily organs depend upon the human skeleton. Intimations of bone, flesh and organs surround the work and the whole seems to have been suggested by anatomical diagrams or x-rays. Its forms, too, are closely related to those in Bartlett's Woman Study II of 1995. In both of these powerfully suggestive works the biological shapes celebrate the fecundity of Woman and are based upon pupa or cocoon husks; an association which underpins the evolving and writhing quality of the sculptures.
These two works may be related to Moyston of 1994 and Silver Rain over Halls Gap of 1995. These two sculptures are unique as both are suggested by an already existing form - in both cases a large piece of red river gum timber is used as a foil to the arabesque lines of metal forms. In Moyston, the bronze and stainless steel shapes spin and dance around the wooden element in ways which seem to trace the flights of insects. The large mass of wood is held up by a conical plinth so that it seems lifted by the activity of the whirring life above its heavy form. This quality of lightness is more pronounced in Silver Rain over Halls Gap, in which we can sense a return to the frontality of Bartlett's early work of the late 1970s. The sculpture even retains their mechanical hints in that this work relies more on the placing of joins and linkages. The fact that Bartlett chose the sculpture's red river gum timber from the property of a friend in Moyston, in central Victoria's wine-growing region, accounts for the farm-like accumulation of forms in this sculpture. In fact, the timber base of this sculpture is seen by him as a landscape, its metal components serving as sculptural additions. This is why the bleached timber of the work is untreated, its creases and moss left intact - these "blemishes" hint at the folds, rivulets and growth of the land itself. The quality of agricultural ingenuity we noted in Bartlett's early work is here recalled through the use of billowing cloud-like shapes, animated windmill vane forms and by the tin caps over the wood which suggests the ant-capping of fence posts so common in Australia's farmland.
Bartlett's recent sculptures also possess a humanising quality. When placed in today's modern buildings they act as foils to their steely and almost antiseptic surfaces - the soft undulating forms and patinated surfaces, like the richness of Persian carpets, seem necessary to humanise their new locations. This complementing quality is an important part of the appeal of Bartlett's work. Consequently his sculptures have the enviable characteristic of looking "right" anywhere and they sit happily with our contemporary consciousness. Bartlett's sculptural accretions always exceed the bounds of his artistic sources and his sophisticated reading of visual sources, his honesty in his approach to material, structure and technique give his works a remarkable and unique quality.
All Bartlett's recent works evince the mature results of a twenty-seven-year professional concern with the uses of the visual language of sculptural form. His sculptures, predicated upon the amalgamation of the mechanical and the natural, have produced a distinctive signature style, which has engendered works that are special; they denote special sensations, special space, special objects and special amalgamations. Bartlett's recent sculptures are almost literary in their formal appeal; more than that, they may be considered as three-dimensional metaphors. Just as metaphors depend upon hinged juxtapositions and linkages of words, so too do Bartlett's sculptures depend upon conjunctions of materials, shapes and forms - however, they throw up associations that are visual rather than lexical. The source of good metaphors cannot be fathomed - it rests in deep, intuitive realms. In similar fashion, the three-dimensional incorporated beauty of Bartlett's juxtapositions is intuitively inspired. His sculptures unfurl before the eye in ways which enlarge our view of sculpture and make us forget common preconceptions about what it should be. If, as the Harvard philosopher Willard Quine says, the "crux of metaphor is creative extension through analogy", then Bartlett's work introduces us to the extended visual power of sculptural analogy in highly memorable ways.
- February 2001
I wish to thank Geoffrey Bartlett for his kind help and the generous way he allowed me access to his work, studio, documentation, personal records and unpublished Columbia University MFA Research Paper.
Ken Wach "Silver Cloud", in Geoffrey Bartlett
Geoffrey Bartlett: Silver Cloud, Deakin University, Melbourne, 2001