Geoffrey Bartlett, a major contemporary sculptor, will exhibit a combination of past and present works and a selection of his working drawings in order to provide insight into his creative practice in Canberra. By Kerry-Anne Cousins
In August this year Geoffrey Bartlett, a major contemporary sculptor now living in Melbourne, will have an exhibition at the Australian National University (ANU) Drill Hall Gallery. The exhibition will serve to provide a context for the few works that have already been seen in Canberra as well as an insight into his sculptural practice. One of Bartlett's commissions in Canberra in 2000 was his sculpture for the Ian Ross Building in the Faculty of Engineering at the Australian National University. In the same year he also had an exhibition of his sculpture at the Beaver Galleries in Deakin. In 2003 Bartlett's sculpture The Rose, The Bullet, The Window was one of the finalists in the 2003 National Sculpture Prize at the National Gallery of Australia. In a recent interview with Bartlett it was obvious that these two sculptural pieces-the Ian Ross Building commission and the recent sculpture The Rose, the Bullet and The Window-each in their own way reflect Bartlett's current aesthetic philosophy and his method of working as a sculptor.
As the title suggests, The Rose, The Bullet, The Window is a sculpture of disparate parts. A metal ladder, carved wooden forms and a large, found, wooden burl that had been in his studio for ten years are brought together as if by chance. Bartlett sees these different elements as providing him with a creative challenge. His task is to organise them into what he is feels is a satisfying completeness. To some people, however the dialogue that is set up between these objects is one of disjunction. It is this tension of things only just connecting that gives Bartlett's work its cutting edge. He acknowledges that the excitement of creation lies in struggling with this knife-edge between success and failure; of not knowing how a sculpture will evolve or whether it will come together satisfactorily.
When I ask about the influence of Robert Klippel, Bartlett makes the point that Klippel in his assemblages was working with similar kinds of parts that were drawn together through a natural affinity. He on the other hand deliberately selects materials and objects that are completely unalike and experiments with finding some central inner balance that will unite them in a way that he finds satisfying. In bringing these parts together, Bartlett also notes that of prime concern to his sculptural practice is the process of making. He is concerned that the actual process of making the work is apparent and that the nuts and bolts of the work should be seen and appreciated as part of the creative process.
In a work he is making for the Drill Hall exhibition Bartlett notes that the bolts he is using on the work will be an integral part of it. Bartlett uses these details as a deliberate device. His aim is twofold; as he explains it, he wishes people to see his sculpture first in its entirety, then, in order to draw people closer, he provides tactile and minute detailing that will cause the viewer to engage with the surface of the sculpture by concentrating on a small microcosm of it. In effect, as Bartlett has noted, 'to engage in a dialogue with the sculpture at ever diminishing distances'. A simile that comes to mind is to see the whole tree then be drawn into studying a single leaf. The leaf contains certain information that is relevant to that leaf but is also related to the wider wholeness of the tree.
The commission for the Ian Ross Building at the Australian National University was one of Bartlett's happier experiences. He had nothing but praise for the way he was given the freedom to create the work as he wished within his own creative perimeters. The only constriction he noted was budget. The resulting sculpture called Fusion is a good example of Bartlett's work-fresh and energetic, the innovative forms move over the entrance to the building in a lively way, yet at the same time draw you into their orbit to examine their unfamiliarity by a close-up observation of their surface detail and construction. The intricate metal fretwork of one of the sculptural forms is a good example of Bartlett's interest in surface detailing. The sculpture embraces the main entrance to the building in the same manner as a sculptural portico on a medieval cathedral and becomes an integral part of the building-yet still maintaining its individual vitality.
Bartlett is now working on his own sculptures instead of actively seeking the big profitable commissions that he has completed in the past. He feels that in certain cases, such as big sculptural commissions, the aesthetic restrictions and the interference and close scrutiny by other interested parties in the project can have a detrimental effect on the sculptor and the final resulting work. Art in fact can become married to the corporate interest. In Bartlett's opinion some architects think they are the sole arbitrators of public taste and their buildings have become more like self-monuments than buildings that also serve a useful function. Bartlett sees the Guggenheim museum at Bilbao as one example where the building itself is the 'destination work of art,' while the artworks themselves have to take their chances in the barn-like galleries inside. It seems to Bartlett that function is being sacrificed at the expense of form.
Bartlett is a high profile artist who has been successful in the important sculptural prizes that are now so prevalent in the art calendar. Recently he was a finalist in the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Prize Award, and in the 2002 and 2003 National Sculpture Prize and was a prize winner in the McClelland Survey and Award for Contemporary Sculpture. I was curious to know, in view of the number of awards, whether Bartlett thought we were experiencing a resurgence of contemporary sculpture. His view is, that in effect a new type of sculpture has emerged and that contemporary sculpture is now taking on new forms and moving in many new directions. Bartlett also observed that women have far outnumbered men in his sculpture classes and he thought that women artists working in new materials and in new ways have contributed to a renewed interest and freedom of expression in sculptural works.
In his own career Bartlett has travelled widely. He completed his Master of Fine Arts (Hons) at Columbia University, New York and had an artist's residency in Tuscany. Bartlett also spent many years teaching, including four years as Senior Lecturer in Sculpture at Monash University in the 1990s. Eight years ago he withdrew from teaching to concentrate on his own work at his Collingwood studio in Melbourne. However, he has continued to be interested in art education and has generously opened his studio for school students on art excursions.
The exhibition at the Australian National University Drill Hall Gallery is the result of Bartlett's own interest in having his work shown in Canberra, and came about because he was impressed with past exhibitions of sculpture that had been on at the Drill Hall Gallery. At the moment he is not quite sure what works he will select for the exhibition, but the plan is to have a combination of past and present works in addition to a selection of his working drawings in order to provide some insight into his creative practice.
It is hoped that Bartlett will also add a guide on his website to the sites of his public sculpture commissions, at least in Melbourne, for those of us who wish to see more work by this gifted artist.
Kerry-Anne Cousins has an honours degree in fine arts and works at the Nolan Gallery.