Geoffrey Bartlett Sculptures

Art of instinct and identity

by Sasha Grishin

Canberra Times, 23 August 2007

A Federation Square retrospective is a fitting tribute to one of Australia's foremost senators, taking visitors into the fantastic universe of Geoffrey Bartlett's unconventional artworks, Sasha Grishin writes.

Many Canberrans would know of Geoffrey Bartlett's work from Parliament House, where he has two monumental painted steel sculptures, Two Points of View (1985) and Lessons in Gravity (1984). Both of these he made in New York, where he spent two years on a Harkness Fellowship at Columbia University. In 2004 a survey exhibition was held of his sculptures at the Australian National University, Drill Hall Gallery; he was included in the National Gallery of Australia's National Sculpture Prize in 2005; and now the National Gallery of Victoria has honoured the 55-year-old Melbourne-based sculptor with a major retrospective exhibition at Federation Square. This large exhibition, curated by David Hurlston, examines the sculptures completed since Bartlett returned to Australia from New York in 1985.

Bartlett argues that making sculpture is a natural and instinctive act. What changes are the techniques employed in expressing yourself in sculpture, which become refined with time. In 2000, he wrote: "To make sculpture can be as basic as this - you need a love of making things... and when you have made work for a long time you can't just throw it together... When you know how to do something properly, like playing a. musical instrument - whatever it happens to be - you can't do it badly, you would be untrue to yourself.

What one is immediately struck by in this exhibition is that the work is beautifully crafted. Bartlett is an obsessive maker of objects, a consummate technician, one who must have infinite patience for the most incredibly time-intensive artistic strategies. He creates his own fantastic universe which has a tangible reality, its own sense of natural order. Unlike his earlier sculptures, which were frequently planular and conscious of the welded steel heritage of American sculptor David Smith, many of the works on display are much more volumetric the forms encourage you to walk around the pieces and examine them closely.

As you enter the exhibition and encounter the first, dramatically lit room with pieces from the Coronary at Luna Park series of 1989, you realize that for Bartlett beauty is a prickly and multicoloured thing. While acutely aware of tradition and the broader international sculpture scene, he is an unconventional sculptor with a distinctive artistic personality. Although he belongs to that marvelously creative group of sculptors who emerged from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in the mid-seventies and included Augustine Dall'Ava and Anthony Pryor, with whom lie frequently exhibited, Bartlett has developed in his mature work an immediately recognizable individual artistic language.

While it may be a little foolish to speak of abstraction or non-figuration in contemporary sculpture - after all Bartlett is making objects which operate on quite a human frame of reference - there is a total absence of literalness in his work. He does not set out to copy nature, but to reinvent it on new principles. Inspiration may come from a sea anemone, a lump of well weathered wood or a piece of architecture, but they are inevitably absorbed, reinterpreted in new materials and become part of the sculptor's unique lexicon.

When we see his work over a couple of decades, the sense of duality which runs throughout his art is striking. It is not so much the organic versus the mechanical or a young man growing up growing up in rural Victoria and in some way humanising farm machinery, but more a playful imposition of self shown within encountered or invented elements.

A sculpture such as The rose, the bullet, the window (2001), from the collection of the National Gallery in Canberra, could he read in terms of the artist's recent trip to Spain, Portugal and Morocco, where he was impressed by the fortress-like architectural forms, or as the play between natural organic and metal geometric shapes, or even as the contrast between the male and female elements. However, more than anything else it is an image of the artist and his responses to the surrounding world. Sometimes, as in the lead relief self-portrait (2000) the reference to self is quite explicit. More often than not it is subtle, but nevertheless omnipresent. In an odd way, many of his works can be read as self-portraits.

The Bartlett exhibition is one of few I have seen at Federation Square that manages to use the awkward and ambiguous spaces of the building that have sabotaged many a show. The curator, David Hurlston, has used the niche-like enclosures to enhance the intimacy of the viewing experience and has created a dramatic chapel-like enclosure to present some of the major pieces. There is a slight theatricality in the display which makes seeing the show a memorable experience.

Geoffrey Bartlett is one of Australia's most interesting younger sculptors, whose work is getting better with time. This is a great show by a major artist.