Geoffrey Bartlett was the first sculptor to be granted the prestigious Harkness Fellowship and the first Australian sculptor to graduate with a Master of Fine Arts Degree from Columbia University in New York. Significantly, Emerita Professor Luise Kaish (1925-), then Head of the Sculpture Department at Columbia University, was so impressed with the conspicuous quality of Bartlett's post graduate work that she presented him with the Master's Student Award for Outstanding Performance. Parenthetically, in 1984, he also was the first person to be awarded an Australia Council Residency at the Arthur Boyd Studio in Tuscany in Italy.
Bartlett left Melbourne for New York on 25 August 1983, the day after Patrick McCaughey, then Director of the National Gallery of Victoria, unveiled his commissioned eight by seven metres sculpture Messenger, which stood in the Gallery's front moat for twenty years. This much-admired sculpture, sophisticated and restrained as it is, was to be the last of Bartlett's early planar-based works, all of which were inspired by the forms of various types of machinery and hinged mechanical devices. Thereafter, with this and his earlier sculptural successes behind him, together with the benefits of study in New York, a new complex refinement and a new sculptural potency crept into Bartlett's sculptures. He is very well traveled, but the two-year stay in New York from 1983 to 1985 clearly marked a crucial turning point in his intellectual and artistic development.
In New York City, Bartlett met the well-known American sculptor Isamu Noguchi (1904-1988) and went to visit the expatriate Australian sculptor Clement Meadmore (1929-2005), in the company of the Melbourne art collectors Loti and Victor Smorgon. He also worked in close daily contact with the American sculptor Roy Gussow at Columbia University's Prentice Hall building on 125th Street in New York. Gussow (1918-), who studied under the Hungarian sculptor Liszl Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) and the Ukrainian sculptor Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964) and worked at the Institute of Design in Chicago in the mid-Forties, did much to introduce Bartlett to a new and wider sculptural environment.
Bartlett visited all the major art galleries in New York and was inspired by their plentiful contents. Bartlett's work during this fertile period in New York was enriched by personal study and wide research in various demanding academic subjects and, of course, by close contact with the many artistic holdings of that varied and artistically rich metropolis. He also took the valuable opportunity to see and scrutinize the many accomplished examples of sculpture by international masters such as the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), the Italian artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), the Lithuanian sculptor Jacques Lipchitz (1891-1973), the Spanish sculptor Julio Gonzlez (1868-1908) and the Rumanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957).
It is often not appreciated that biological and organic forms in Nature develop as optimal extensions in other words, they make the best of their environments, conditions, materials and surroundings. In Nature, form, fit and placement are all critically important. Bartlett was first made fully aware of the importance and sculptural potential of these thought provoking observations at the same time that he was impressed by the aesthetic characteristics of the works of the English sculptor Henry Moore (1889-1986) and the American sculptor David Smith (1906-1965). Both of these markedly different sculptors are acknowledged masters of works that possess striking physical presence and carefully considered visual aptness. Their sculptures also always sit signally well in their chosen locations. All of these thoughts and personal reassessments occurred to Bartlett in September 1983 when he saw and compared the respective attributes of the works of Moore and Smith in context. This occurred when he visited and took in the sculptural offerings of the famous Storm King Art Center at Mountainville in the lower Hudson Valley, 100 kilometres north of New York City. On display in this 500 acre garden, in the midst of the Palisades Interstate Park with its many thousands of acres of preserved native American woodlands, are over 120 large sculptures by 100 post-1945 European and American sculptors.
Soon after, Bartlett's sculpture took a new artistic direction. It was a decisive turn whose creative and aesthetic directions are still evident in his sculpture. Some of the refined development of Bartlett's new work may be observed in the seventeen sculptures that he completed while in New York, all of which grapple with volumetric concerns. Bartlett describes many of the sculptures created in New York as having an almost "projectile" quality, as though they exploded from a central energy this may be best seen in the three works purchased for the permanent collection of Parliament House in Canberra. Many of these mid career sculptures are painted and all display a new confidently grasped and more emphatic use of three-dimensionality importantly, his New York experiences also moved his sculptures away from the space of a gallery to the space of a site.
An important aesthetic feat had been successfully accomplished with the New York works and Bartlett's more emphatically three-dimensional sculptures thereafter came to embody new formal and spatial characteristics: the incorporation of legs and tripods, the animated use of jutting forms, the imbalance of shapes, the appearance of bow and shield forms, the addition of the plinth and the use of a shifted centre of gravity. These became the hallmarks of his new individual direction upon his return to Melbourne in 1985. In 1990, he set up a studio and started to work alone in a spirit of independence away from his student friends Augustine Dall'Ava and Anthony Pryor. The three remained very close friends, but Bartlett recognized within himself a desire to incorporate his American experiences.
Bartlett's newly adopted volumetric interests lent themselves to the suggestion of space, scale, movement, containment, material reworking, surface interest and the creation of a variety of forms. All these attributes and compositional characteristics began to thread their way through his work from that time on although, it must be said, not in any systematic or chronologically structured way. It was more the case that they were used when the forms and themes of his sculptures seemed to demand or warrant particular approaches or techniques. After all, with Bartlett's work what drives all of his processes or approaches is always the sculptural integrity and the aesthetic and material qualities of the end result. His artistic approaches are never formulaic, decorative, over-confident or over-planned and they never arise from the mere application of fcile technique or rest on any mannered over-reliance upon familiar or clichd forms.
One gets a fuller sense of these newer attributes and characteristics when viewing some examples from Bartlett's modeled and painted bronze and steel series of sculptures created in Melbourne between 1987 and 1991. For example, the work Red Dog of 1987 stands free, elevated by a rod, on a plinth and seems almost to sway and turn like the remnants of a wind vane. Its visual balance is precarious and the shapes and colours draw the viewer's eye in toward the mass of tangled forms. The sculpture is carefully painted and the eye is seduced by the dappled gloss and layered patinations of the varied coloured surfaces. Bartlett's sculpture Elephant Man of 1988 is similarly dramatic and possesses that strangely attractive off-balanced appearance that he learned to handle in New York. The sculpture is formed of a mass of physical shapes suggestive of the cruel deformities suffered by John Merrick, the subject of a 1926 book by Dr. Frederick Treves and a powerful film by the American director David Lynch, which was released in 1980. The structure's steel rod has angularities and curves that respond to the shapes formed by Merrick's spine curvatures, as does the over-large squared head with its suggestions of a covering mask or cage with its accompanying sense of entrapment. These sensation dense and technically complex works are not meant to be beautiful in any superficial sense, but to be confronting in their raw power and fractured forms they make no concessions to common visual conventions of the time. On the contrary, they present an aesthetic challenge to any viewer unaccustomed to idiosyncratic and autonomous visual statements. Bartlett has always been aware of the dangers that some sculptors fall prey to: that of just making beautiful or decorative objects that have little to say and simply fill a space, like some statuary of old. A slightly less confrontational work is Bartlett's Imperial Temple of 1990. The sculpture is based upon the shapes of Indian Hindu temples with their shrines within shrines, their myriad colours and their painted entablatures. In the sculpture, four arm-like arched columns are raised to both protect and ensnare a bird-like winged form suspended over a lingam shape. The whole structure is supported by a temple bell-like shape that sets off the almost totemic sculpture as some form of hybrid fertility deity.
Bartlett and his devoted wife Vicki traveled to India in 1989 where he found the experience exhilarating as, like Japan, he did not have to go to art galleries to find artistically interesting prompts for his imagination. The colours, forms and daily life of Indian streets were enough. To some extend Bartlett's painted bronze sculptures owe much to this 1989 trip as, in the main, they evoke the colours, forms and structures of India, particularly in works such as his Sun God 1 and Sun God 2 of 1989. However, this observation must be qualified by two other factors: firstly, the unexpected admiration that Bartlett found he had for the works of the American artist Nancy Graves (1940-1995), when he saw her work during his period in New York and secondly, the Impressionist paintings of the French artist Georges Seurat (1859-1891). Seurat's pointillist paintings demand distance to be "read" visually, yet they also draw the viewer close because of their colours and the visual richness of their intricate surface treatments. Graves's paintings and sculptural constructions are concerned with surfaces and details that engage the viewer and invite close inspection at an intimate level. All of this was something that Bartlett had not really considered before. Up until 1987, all of Bartlett's works were constructed to command a physical presence from a distance; his early work forced one back; forced one to see it in relationship to its space and environment; the bigger it was, the more that one was forced to move away from it it prompted, what might be called a "zoom-out" aesthetic reaction. After noting the seductive surfaces and visual invitations of Seurat and Graves's works, Bartlett later decided upon a similar aesthetic path and started making his carefully worked painted bronze series; work that invited close scrutiny; work that drew the viewer close; work that demanded an inspectorial gaze it prompted, what might be called a "zoom-in" aesthetic reaction.
The unusual physical fluidity of Bartlett's painted bronze series of sculptures is due to its underlying technique of modeling with wax over a steel armature it allowed him to accentuate fine points of material connection. This technique allows for and generates certain free and organic characteristics that cannot be achieved with steel alone it also allowed, as in Elephant Man, for the incorporation of steel into the body of the bronze casting; something not achieved by any other sculptor in Australia. Though it was most unusual at the time, all of the works in this bronze series are carefully painted and their surfaces are treated in the manner of some Picasso or Joan Mir (1893-1983) sculptures. This makes the sculptures' surfaces and their colours modulated and integral to the works and avoids the suspicion that the paint is inappropriate or just a superficial surface coating in this way, the laboriously worked surface treatments are made to be painterly extensions of the sculptures' skins. In a larger developmental sense, Bartlett's early painted bronze series may be seen as a fulcrum whose force moves both backward and forward. Backwards to his New York works with their use of jutting forms, plinths, painted surfaces and imbalanced forms and forwards to later works that rely on arcs, legs, tripods, the bow and shield shapes and the rich surface modifications that animate his work to the present day. The visual insistence, bracing freshness and originality of the compendium of associations and layered emotional evocations that this rarely seen series of painted bronzes contains, gives some indication of Bartlett's visual acuity and broad artistic intelligence.
Bartlett's use of arc, leg and bow and shield shapes may best be seen to powerful effect in his Woman series of 1991 to 1994, most of which partially arose from the intaglio prints that he was making at Prentice Hall at Columbia University a decade earlier. If one turns to his work entitled Solitary Grace (Woman 1) of 1991 one is presented with a range of semi-abstracted elegant forms, all of which relate to the principal theme suggested by its title. Various aspects of the question and concept of Woman are here juxtaposed in ways that are as celebratory as they are confronting. A foetal-like Nautilus shell sits enthroned in a raised and roofed-over "temple" shape with three Ionic columns and two bone-like supports these are strangely appropriate columns since the Ionic order is based upon the volute of spiral shells. The floor of this "temple" is tilted forward so that its contents are more readily seen, in much the way that is found in Manet and Cezanne's still-life paintings and in Picasso's drawings for sculptures. Three lyrical bronze lines with suggestions of a net, hints of hair and a smile delicately hang above this central section. The graceful forms of this arrangement of visual elements calls to mind Giacometti's table top series of sculptures of the 1940s and his caged sculptures of the late Twenties and early Thirties although Bartlett's forms as far less menacing than those of Giacometti. Besides, Bartlett's forms are almost calligraphic in their deftness and more lyrical than anything that Giacometti ever made. A large ladder-like construction and a meshed column, much like a woven fish net, support the whole precarious super-structure. Intimations of striving, fecundity and entrapment flood the whole three-dimensional spectacle. Bartlett's Solitary Grace (Woman 1) is a remarkable juxtaposition of pictographic elements and the sculpture is full of both nervous expectation and tremulous apprehension this double play of sensations gives this elegant sculpture its uncanny and powerful energy.
Another sculpture that revisits some of Bartlett's earlier ideas, all based upon the theme of Woman, is Faith (Woman 5) of 1995; an editioned work of bronze and steel forgings. It stands on two graceful legs that support a table-like plateau above which rises an insect-like mandible, seemingly based upon the shape of a Venus Fly Trap plant, which guards some biological or womb-like objects. Once again, the table or dish form is tilted forward for the viewer's scrutiny. The upper section of the work has some similarities to Giacometti's famous bronze floor piece entitled Woman with her Throat Cut at the Museum of Modern Art a work Bartlett knew well from his stay in New York. However, whereas Giacometti's floor piece is more brutal and based, after the French Surrealists, upon the supposedly emasculating symbolic attributes of the preying mantis, Bartlett's sculpture is much more plant-like and biological in outline, it even traces out the broad shapes of a traditional Mother and Child composition. Its left leg is planted solidly and the right is sharply arched with a lower cabriole curve that gives the sculpture a curious tension, as though the work was, at any moment, about to scamper away like a creature from an early Ridley Scott movie. The whole dynamic sculpture is both vaguely threatening and curiously enticing; it stands facing one with the silent menace of an open trap. In the early to mid 1990s, Bartlett became increasingly interested in human dualities and oppositions. His domestic life had blissfully developed and his mind somehow turned to wider and broader human concerns those of male and female attributes, of complementary modes of thought, of psychological manners of approach and of corresponding perceptions of the world. The effect of these sorts of personal philosophical ruminations was almost immediate and Bartlett's sculptures became, after about 1990, less "masculine" in their surface appearance and more psychological rich in their wider suggestions. Certainly, Bartlett wants his sculptures to engender free responses in the viewer, however, his Faith (Woman 5) of 1995 does seem to emanate a siren-like enticement; an enticement cleverly made all the more palpable by its snare-like forms. Remarkably, Bartlett here has skillfully reinterpreted a long established psychological theme in Nineteenth Century European art - that of the contrasts of the protective force and the fatal charm of Woman.
The sobering qualities that seem subsumed within Faith (Woman 5) 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 and 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-ray photographs. Its exoskeleton forms are closely related to those in Bartlett's Woman Study II of 1995. In both of these powerfully suggestive works the biological shapes and hollow steel forms celebrate the fecundity of Woman and are based upon carapaces, pupa or cocoon husks; associations that underpin the strange evolving and writhing qualities of the two sculptures.
Compositionally, the latter two works are somewhat related to Bartlett's large sculptures Moyston of 1994 and Silver Rain over Hall's Gap of 1996. These two large works however are unique as both are partially pre-determined by an already existing form - in both cases, very large pieces of red river gum are used as found objects, which act as foils to the arabesque lines and metal forms that attach to them. These wooden hulks sat in Bartlett's studio for years defying change, since they were already so striking. In Bartlett's Moyston, the bronze and stainless steel shapes spin and dance around the wooden element in ways that seem to trace the curved flights of buzzing insects a great visual energy gyrates around the sculpture. A conical plinth holds up the large mass of wood so that it seems lifted up by the activity of the whirring life above its heavy form. The conical plinth of the base is mimicked by a large conical form above the mass of timber that insistently points inwards to the sculpture in a way that emphasizes its size. Six linkage points lead to an upward curve of forms that springs together and holds the composition in a curious airiness. This quality of lightness, one that occurs often in Bartlett's work, is more pronounced in his sculpture Silver Rain over Hall's Gap . In this work of 1996, more than in the other, one can see a return to the frontality and horizontal format of Bartlett's early sculptures of the late 1970s. The sculpture even retains their mechanical hints in that this work relies more on the place of joins and linkages. The fact that Bartlett personally choose the sculpture's red river gum timber from the country property of a friend in Moyston, in central Victoria's wine growing region, may well account for the farm-like accumulation of forms in this sculpture. In fact, Bartlett sees the timber base of this sculpture as a countryside landscape with its metal components serving as sculptural additions to that vista. This is why the raw timber of this large work is left bleached and unfinished with its creases, bulges and surface irregularities left intact - in Bartlett's mind these "blemishes" suggest the folds, rivulets and growth of the land itself. There is a poetic quality of agricultural and fencing wire ingenuity recalled here through the use of billowing cloud-like shapes, animated windmill vane forms and especially by the metal caps over the wood that suggest the tin ant capping of fence posts so common in Australia's farmland.
From 1995 to 1997, Bartlett worked with the Melbourne sculptor Bruce Armstrong on a joint commission from the Melbourne City Council. The resultant five-piece work called Constellation stands on the North bank of the Yarra River opposite Melbourne's Crown Casino complex. Looked at in total, the series of works captures natural suggestions of clouds, the billowing of sails, spars, masts, rigging, the movement of wind vanes and the associations of ships' figureheads. Bartlett's jutting copper and stainless steel forms seem ever ready to pivot and point in their maritime location. The group of five appropriately angled sculptures splays outward from a central column that displays the prow of a boat, the only symmetrical element in the group of works. Both of the group's outermost forms curve inward as though to bracket or bookend the thematically related arrangement thus concentrating visual attention inwards upon the central boat form, itself a restrained hint of the historical and marine connections stipulated in the official commission's brief. All of this is done in ways that successfully link the mechanical with the natural and marry the sea with the land. It is almost unnecessary to add that the sculptural qualities of this 1997 artistic collaboration, the first in Bartlett's career, are immediately apparent and have been firmly and readily appreciated by Melbourne's public. An undeniable part of the lingering appeal of these five sculptures on the Turning Basin of the Yarra River is their formal diversity and acute awareness of locational aptness. This appeal is hardly surprising since, as noted, Bartlett's sculptural works after 1987 all display new volumetric concerns coupled with a heightened awareness of placement and location.
In 1996, Bartlett embarked upon a series of Self Portraits, all of which are based upon a harsh simplification of forms occasioned by the necessary constraints of his 1996 Obelisk architecture commission. The commission led to a change in Bartlett's approach and he subtracted from forms rather than adding to them. One of the most striking of these more simplified sculptures is entitled Awakening Desire. In this work, Bartlett has used an unusual variety of materials: ironbark wood, lead sheet, bronze and copper brads. 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 that acts as a visual intermediary between the sculpture's two distinctly unlike materials and shapes. The eye's fluid movement over the top lyrical shape bumps off this central bronze shape and jars one into the more brutal qualities of the wooden base. The midpoint 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 and distinct masses of the sculpture impinge upon the central bronze element in ways that emphasize their precarious link - few passages of sculptural form are so carefully trained. Furthermore, the seeming lightness of the sculpture's large lead form only adds to its sense of insecurity. The sensitive mind enjoys the paradoxical associations of physical weight being treated so lightly and thus seeming to defy gravity. 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, even discordant, forms is almost metaphoric and the evocation of male and female attributes is all but inescapable. The circular movement and fragility of the balance of these two suggestive forms is both delicate and tense; a suggestion that is heightened by the sculpture's psychological insecurity and physical instability. 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 below seems to dream its desire whilst the free form of the lead element above seeks to be grounded. Once again, it is the focused convergence of carefully chosen forms that gives Bartlett's sculpture its uncanny evocative power.
An evocative quality of a similarly powerful order pervades Bartlett's related three-dimensional lead encased head study entitled Self Portrait also of 1996. This deceptively simple bust sculpture of lead sheeting and copper brads combined with jarrah and ironbark wood is enlivened by its subtle clash of opposing materials. The soft and pebble smooth qualities of the lead skin of the irregularly shaped and quizzically upturned head contrast with the sharp wooden forms of its base in ways that reinterpret and extend upon Bartlett's acute observation of the varied materials and structures of Japanese temple gates during his trip there in 1977. One need only turn to Bartlett's large lead encased work Self Portrait (In Relief) of 2000 to see another example of his acute observational skills. Bartlett has always admired Egyptian tomb carvings and Assyrian bas-reliefs, particularly as seen in London's British Museum. Bartlett's bas-relief work contains a palpable technical link to these early admirations in that this impressive work contains their shallow contoured method and demonstrates an applied awareness of the effects of slanting shadows. However, Bartlett's large 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 their delicately undulating forms; in how flat the relief could be and how little gradation of surface was needed to suggest positive and negative form. The understated aesthetic appeal of Bartlett's large lead bas-relief essentially rests upon just such an artistic economy.
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. Bartlett's use of lead in contemporary sculpture is unique and in his case, it marks a progression through steel, aluminium, bronze and copper to a more yielding substance. It is as though Bartlett's newly developed ideas after 1996 demanded the use of a more yielding and adaptable material. Lead's sensitive and pliant response to handling make it an ideal material for the suggestion of form. Lead's dull sheen and dark colour absorb light greedily and therefore, as in this work, it throws into relief any small alteration of its shape. Bartlett's bas-relief work Self-Portrait (In Relief) reflects its own inner sub-structure and the sculpture's graceful lines of brads and joins, like aircraft panels, help to reveal and delineate its hidden construction. Bartlett makes lead look light. Despite its obvious weight, the lead in this sculpture seems to have been casually thrown onto its curved surfaces this is at the opposite end of the America Pop artist Claes Oldenburg (1929-) and his choice of lead to make a cast of a chicken feather in an ironic twist on the lightness of a feather. Such is the delicacy of Bartlett's handling that the heavy lead sheet covering his work rests lightly over its underlying 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 large 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.
Midway in the year 2000, Bartlett traveled to Spain, Portugal and Morocco. He came back to Australia enlivened by his memory of various architectural details. Certainly, he had noticed architecture before, most notably that of Anton Gaud (1852-1926) in Spain in 1977 and Hindu temples in India in 1989, but he never became so fascinated with actual architectural details until this particular trip. One such architectural element was a stone embrasure, or arrow-slit, window seen in an old Portuguese fort. Its defensive vertical slit-like opening, its angled sides and domed top all allowed for firing musket bullets both downward and across. What Bartlett admired was the essential physical elegance of the small window's shape and the odd way it both focused and enclosed one's view. In Bartlett's poetically receptive and creatively imaginative mind, what ensued were semi-conscious meditations upon what the embrasure window might symbolize, what it enclosed and what it protected. The large sculpture entitled The Rose, the Bullet, the Window of 2001, now in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, was born of just such private ponderings. The commanding planar sculpture "reads" left to right and it splays across a range of carefully rendered materials and images: on the left the phallic-like sentinel tower with its embrasure opening, which is connected by a wooden ladder form to a vaginal opening on the right linked with a large ligneous burl, much like an unfurled rose bud, and a bullet-shaped cone, itself suggested by a ceramic vessel seen in a museum. The horizontally linked sculpture prompts a head turning side-to-side relational aesthetic reaction that conjures up alternate thoughts of male and female attributes, of protection and being protected, of closed and open forms and of aggression and cultivation. The optical relationship of the sculpture's dual and oppositional elements is dynamic in effect and laterally charged - the sculpture almost unscrolls before the eye and may be "read" as a compendium of recollected sensations that Bartlett felt after he visited the Portuguese fort. What we have in this sculpture is a composite construction that rests upon a new lateral aesthetic correspondence between disparate forms. For Bartlett, this was an extremely challenging piece as it called for an incorporation of the frontal format of his early work of the Seventies, the spatial finsse of his mid-career work, together with the new relational elements of his works in the decade after the year 2000.
A curious martial, or armorial, element crept into Bartlett's artistic imagination in late 2000. Its effects are subtly evident in his work, The Rose, the Bullet, the Window of 2001 and more obvious in others. Its short incidence was, no doubt, brought about by his trip to Spain, Portugal and Morocco in 2000; countries whose besieged histories spawned forts at almost every turn. However, another factor that preconditioned his thoughts was his viewing of an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1998 entitled Imperial Austria: Treasures of Art, Arms and Armour from the State of Styria , which displayed arms and armory made with exceptional skill and craftsmanship. The conjunction of the trip and the preceding exhibition gives a clue as to how Bartlett's artistic imagination works. His almost yearly trips overseas feed his artistic mind - a walking antenna goes abroad. The aesthetic results of his travels are collected, "downloaded" and then recombined. The fundamental intellectual processes are those of accumulation and associationalism. The effects of these tandem processes may be seen in the freestanding sculpture entitled Tower of 2003, with its vertical four-part conglomeration of oregon, red gum, aluminium and stainless steel and the related framed work Shield of 2002 with its tin-plated lead, copper, bronze and various timbers. Both sculptures speak of Bartlett's almost immediate grasping of physical form and his clear ability to distill its sculptural significance.
Of course, the latter observations relate only to two or three works spread over as many years. The truly creative mind, the French theorist Andr Breton (1896 1966) famously called it "the savage eye" in 1928, is ever on the watch of becoming stale and its ideas being hackneyed. In 2004, Bartlett returned to the relational aesthetic concerns that exist in his work The Rose, the Bullet, the Window of 2001. In Bartlett's sculpture Double Self Portrait, he returned to a frontal planar composition with two large head shapes of identical size. Each head shape has the embrasure slit, part of the right shoulder and a horn-like wisp of hair. These shapes are fronted by a highly textured wooden burl, which refers back to his Landscape series of 1994 to 1996, introduces a sense of a Giacometti-like scale and space - the whole scene is surrounded by an open wooden frame that focuses the eye on the enclosed space. The structure sits on a large hollow rectangular wooden plinth its empty space seems to magnify the upper relationship of forms and make it more pronounced. Like its related work 280205 of 2006, the sculpture has considerable presence and both works possess a solemn dignity that commands serious attention in much the same way the Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico (1888 1978) does in his mannequin series of paintings during his Metaphysical Period after 1913. In Bartlett's Double Self Portrait, we are shown two sides of the one self, although he concedes that they could easily be seen as male and female or husband and wife. This corresponds with the new double play of elements that comes to the fore in many of Bartlett's sculptures after 2001 and the relational aesthetic response of scanning the images heralds a new iconographic complexity in his work.
An overview is in order. Bartlett's early sculptures were planar and meant to be looked at from a distance; during his second phase his sculptures was modelled and they drew the viewer in to appreciate the density and treatment of modelled surfaces; his third phase was volumetric and invited the viewer to walk around varied three-dimensional forms; his fourth phase was locational and context dependant and his fifth phase was relational and relied upon lateral readings of disparate forms. Bartlett's most recent phase is based upon the boxed tableau format within which forms are revealed as though a curtain has been drawn onto a scene, where forms are engaged in "silent conversation" in a deeply recessional and psychologically dense space. Of course, these six aesthetic categories are not rigid or binding; Bartlett's artistic imagination moves across them as a composer might move from one musical form to another to strike a different note or engender a new mood. However, these six phases give one some idea of the broad intellectual range and refined aesthetic complexity that marks Bartlett's sculptural development from 1976 onwards.
The visual balance and spatial harmony of this latter tableaux phase in Bartlett's work are remarkable. They are all domestic sized wall pieces that demand attention. They are contained in boxed forms with a Renaissance-like perspectival format, which describes an imaginary space that focuses upon the formal relationship and physical properties of objects and shapes that are carefully situated within the space. Bartlett's wall sculpture Whales in a Red Sea of 2004, probably prompted by watching a television report on whale hunting, presents two bronze shapes reminiscent of whale's fins and bodies with their crustacean appendages. The two globular shapes rest on a tumbling wave form and are presented in a boxed form, with receding lines that stress the carefully placed and focused drama of the piece. Bartlett's related tableaux wall piece Sea Anemone on St. Kilda Pier of 2004 shows a similar boxed construction with an anemone form on a platform that presents it like an icon, while his Marine Exhibit of 2004 displays two marine shaped objects, one in a boxed construction, in a "silent conversation" composition. All of these tableau wall sculptures are characterized by a charged psychological atmosphere, as though one witnesses something private; they are modest in size, yet, such is their visual impact and compositional skill, that they give the impression they could easily be room sized in scale.
Most of the works in this retrospective exhibition are from Bartlett's own private collection; they therefore give one the opportunity to see a range of rarely seen works and appreciate the artist at his best and most varied. Bartlett's careful use of surface treatments constantly surprise with closely considered collations of various materials, collisions of surfaces, clashes of technique and points of contact. It is also worth noting that no other Australian sculptor uses so many individual material techniques in the development of a single work. In Bartlett's sculptures one is liable to find welding, soldering, plating, casting, carving, modelling, riveting, bolting and lamination all harmoniously combined and brought to account in the making of the one sculpture. Bartlett's sculptures also allow for the natural characteristics or so-called "flaws" of various physical materials - hammer marks on metal, the knots in wood, the grain in timber and the inherent malleable qualities of the respective materials - all are allowed their own unmistakable language. Techniques of fabrication too are not disguised and it is as though no material in Bartlett's sculptures is strained beyond its own willing limits - no material loses its temper - its innate qualities are never physically compromised and brads, bolts, rivets, pins, clasps, steel, copper, aluminium, lead, bronze and wood are all allowed their own recognizable place in a symphonically combined sculptural whole.
The visual power of Bartlett's sculptures often hinge upon points of compositional convergence; that is, upon joins, flanges, brackets, guy wires, pins, bolts, ribs, hinges and the fresh relationships of various physical textures, surface treatments, massed forms and formal qualities. The creative play of these various elements adds an enviable visual complexity to his sculptural constructions. Each separately worked material, and each mass, in Bartlett's sculptures is curiously heightened by consciously restrained and sculpturally mediated physical contrasts - an energy seems to pass between them and form, fit and placement are crucial. Bartlett's innovative approaches of accretion, placement, construction and connection seem to redouble the visual effects of the individual parts of his sculptures. Bartlett's sculptures are constructed as individual parts that are 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. In this sense, each sculptural part is hand tailored and finished as a formal entity in itself that is then fitted, fixed, pinned, slipped or slotted together into an artistic whole. The subsequent visual power of his sculptures is unleashed and further amplified when these separate parts are then fastened into surprising fabrications. In a sense, Bartlett's sculptures are like well-formed sentences: if the separate parts are right, the whole too is bound to be right.
All of this is interesting, but it must be stressed that these technical and compositional attributes give no full indication of Bartlett's unique artistically synthesizing abilities. Bartlett's sculptures are moulded accretions of material layers, which guide and shape the external form of an original artistic idea. They fill out and clothe an artistically perceptive thought with physical substance. Bartlett's sculptures are the carefully constructed products of thoughtfully accumulated interior insights. All of his sculptures arise from a life of keen observations, an artistic imagination and personal ruminations - this is why the positive visual energy of their billowing and delicate skins also seems to radiate from an inner core. Bartlett's creative processes, which arise from a "giving over" or a voluntary surrendering to the formal and compositional requirements of the work, are governed by associationalist concerns he "loses" himself in the evolving creative formulation of his works - this is why his sculptures are so unique and why they undoubtedly place him at the forefront of contemporary sculpture in Australia.
Dr Ken Wach
School of Culture and Communications
The University of Melbourne