"Sometimes I think I have made a quantum leap in my
work then I step back and see the on-going connections."
Geoffrey Bartlett 1
As with many artists, Geoffrey Bartlett's development as a sculptor has not always followed a straight line. At various stages the environment, people and places have been the strong influence on his work, then the events of his own life have intervened establishing a new course, or the exploration of materials and processes has opened up further possibilities. He has often explored an idea until he has exhausted himself and the theme, feeling that he has made the culminating statement and, for the time at least, he has nothing more to say. Standing in his studio in 1994 surrounded by works in bronze, including one sculpture of massive proportions, Geoffrey Bartlett said, "I don't think I will do any more bronzes for a long time." Picking up the germ of an idea he will set off again, in what appears to be a new direction, yet this exhibition shows that there are numerous underlying characteristics running through his work, linking sculpture in various materials at different periods.
My earliest memories of the work of Geoffrey Bartlett go back to 1976, to a studio exhibition at Gertrude Street,2 a studio he shared with Gus Dall'Ava and Tony Pryor. For a young twenty-four year-old artist the sculptures were large scale, strong and confident, combining opposing elements of massive blocks of timber with linear patterns of steel. It is fascinating to realise that this description could just as easily apply to Geoffrey Bartlett's most recent work Moyston (1994, cat. 1) - a huge log of red gum contrasted with linear elements of welded steel. (Because of problems of size and weight, this monumental work cannot be shown in this travelling exhibition. Instead it is planned to exhibit it at the Exhibition Building, as part of the Fourth Australian Contemporary Art Fair.)
This figurative interest runs through most of Geoffrey Bartlett's work, as can be seen in Ball ans cup of 1974,4 which stands on three legs, arms outstreched, vigorously alert and commanding, part human, part machine, with a stick-figure silhouette. Sometimes the figuration is implied, as in the human gestures of Counterweight for counterweight no. 2 (1985, cat. 23), sometimes it is an abstracted suggestion, as in the series of works, 'Woman'.5
From this period I can remember Untitled (1976)3 which was the most obviously figurative work which Geoffrey Bartlett had produced to this point: beam of oregon for a head, a diagrammatic pattern of steel suggesting internal organs and two legs for support - one leg an oregon block, the other a coiled spring.
Virtually all the works of the 1970s were frontal, incorporating space, but not using it as a three-dimensional element. It was while studying and making sculptures at Columbia University, USA, on a Harkness Scolarship,6 that Geoffrey Bartlett began constructing truly three-dimensional works. Counterweight for counterweight no. 2 illustrates the greater freedom and flexibility that he achieved in welded mild steel. Parts career off into space, but wires pull them back and weights establish a risky sense of balance. The artist says he was wanting to achieve a feeling of grace and elegance, but I suspect his true character showed through, for the work has a certain independent angularity, which makes it compositionally unexpected and visually exciting.
Possibly the only work that could be described as "elegant" is The Messenger (1983, cat. 27), the work in the moat of the National Gallery of Victoria, which was completed in 1983, just before Geoffrey Bartlett left to the USA. As this large sculpture was commercially fabricated for the artist, it is possible that some of the personal idiosyncrasies, the signs of the human hand, were lost. It is a convincing work, right in scale and sympathetic to building, but it lacks some of Geoffrey Bartlett's vigour and directness. As suits the totally symmetrical building, The Messenger is carefully balanced, whereas Lessons in Gravity (1987)7 made only shortly afterwards at the Columbia University studio, is deliberately off centre, with a wilfully precarious sense of balance.
The Messenger is the only public commission that Geoffrey Barlett case has carried out in Australia, even though the artist has prepared drawings and maquettes for 25 to 30 projects. It would appear that his work is too vigorous, too aggressive, for corporate buyers who seek a more polite solution.
William de Kooning, who was never a polite painter, is acknowledged as an influence by Geoffrey Bartlett. This can be seen in subject-matter and style in the exhibition entitled "Woman" at Australian Galleries in 1993. It was an exhibition that made demands upon the viewer, for the artist has stated, "The spectator feels a little awkward, confronted by, yet seduced by the sensuous forms." Again he is playing with opposites, as he has done repeatedly over the years: the mass of timber against the organic forms of nature. He does not use the sculpture as an object of calm contemplation, but as visual stimululus for the flow of often contradictory or ambiguous thoughts.
Whereas Robert Klippel set out to fuse the forms of nature with mechanical structures and has miraculously succeeded in producing a convincing hybrid, Geoffrey Bartlett allows the disparate parts a certain autonomy within the total composition. Solitary grace (Woman 1) (1991, cat. 19) illustrates this point: the two "legs" are quite different, one a curving ladder of bronze, the other a rigidly constructed prop of welded mild steel rod. They support a shrine-like grotto, which is surrounded by pseudo-classical columns, enclosing a real nautilus shell. It is no mean feat to achieve a sense of wholeness from such a collection of dissimilar parts.
The images of women and the use of shrines link back to Geoffrey Bartlett's earliest major exhibition of bronzes at Australian Galleries in 1990. Two things triggered off this great outburst of plenteous and extremely coloured forms - a visit to India and his wife's pregnancy. A typical work, such as Sun god no. 2 (1994, cat. 16) radiated light and life. Symbols of fecundity abounded. The forms of the sculpture were bursting with growth, vibrant with colour: it was a riotously exuberant exhibition. Ayers Rock construction no. 2 (1994, cat. 16) continues the interest in shrines and symbols of fecundity in a complex structure of bronze, copper, cast iron and stainless steel, but this work may be among the last sculptures, produced on this theme. Moyston appears to herald a dramatic change, yet a change that accepts links with the past.
There are certainly many connections from the earliest works through to Geoffrey Bartlett's current sculpture, but there have also been some significant developments. Compared with the frontal restraint of Ball and cup, recent works such Moyston have become far more theatrical and baroque. Bernini would have immediately related to the sweeping sense of movement, the complexity of the composition and the technical virtuosity. On reflection, Geoffrey Bartlett may find that he has indeed made the quantum leap.