Geoffrey Bartlett Sculptures

Sculptor Geoffrey Bartlett recalls the anguish behind his latest show

by Andrew Stephens

The Age, March 20, 2015

Geoffrey Bartlett's sculptures are a sort of three-dimensional diary. The worst day in those pages was the one on which his wife died. When she was killed during a safari in Kenya, Bartlett's life was thrown into deep anguish and sadness. "My studio work came to a halt," he recalls. "It became unimportant."

Artist Geoff Bartlett. Photo: Wayne Taylor

That was a decade ago. The title of his new show, 280205, marks that awful date. "We had been married for 16 years and my life was forever changed," he writes in the catalogue for the exhibition. Overnight he became sole carer for the couple's two young daughters (then aged 13 and 11), had to withdraw from some big projects, and his usual way of working - straight into the studio after breakfast, emerging at dinner time - became a thing of the past. There were more urgent priorities amid coping with the grief and shock of Vicki's sudden death.

One thing that helped Bartlett, though, was a commission he was doing in Docklands, the result of which was the huge sculpture Aurora (2006), opposite the National Australia Bank headquarters. All the art-making of Aurora had been completed before his wife's death - but he still had to oversee the transformation of the original into its final, large-scale form.

It was a purely technical task that required practical, supervisory attention but not much emotional or artistic energy. "I could just go out there for three or four hours and be distracted; it was a project that was perfect for me at the time.

Geoffrey Bartlett, Nude Descending The Stair (1992). Photo: Emily Bartlett

"My work has changed [over time] but it reflects very much what has been happening in my life. The work is a bit like a diary, every sculpture you make is about a period of your life that you document in sculptural form. Some artists paint the same picture their entire lives and don't necessarily indicate anything about their lives. My work does."

After Vicki's death, it took him several years to enter fully into his art-making again. Now, in 280205, he has had the great chance to look back over 40 years of work, through 40 selected sculptures, to view the varied terrain he has crossed.

One of his main concerns these days is that artists might be losing their touch. Being hands-on, he thinks, has gone out of fashion in this digital age where software programs, 3D-rendering and sophisticated image manipulation mean it's rarer to be truly digital - getting 10 digits dirty with clay, paint and other materials.

Bartlett savours those periods of rumination that occur during the slow making of his sculptures, where the artist's handwork is evident. Being with the work, eking out and adding various elements, takes time: and during that time, things evolve.

"I do that deliberately - where you start off something, encounter problems and then work your way through it," he says. "You need to lose yourself and have time to reflect. And then you have the struggle to re-find it. If you eliminate all that process and simply have an idea and then you do a [computer-generated] rendering of it, there is no process in the middle for you to go through this development."

Bartlett is a committed sculptor and it is no surprise his materials are metal and wood. Having had more than 30 solo shows, many big public commissions and a huge retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2007, he has long been praised for his distinct artistic language and technical skills. His works are abstract, rich with unique forms, and are dotted about Melbourne in such a way that they are familiar furniture: we might know them but not necessarily have consciously thought about them, wondered who made them or what meanings they might have.

Bartlett laughs at that concept - the question artists like him are so frequently asked about their work: "So what does it mean?" The usual answer, he says, is "I don't know, I just make the work. I don't need to justify what I do."

He is not sure that is a sufficient answer. So, during the past year, Bartlett took the unusual step of writing his own catalogue text to accompany the extensive exhibition at the McClelland Sculpture Park in Langwarrin. It's a radical thing for an artist to do: almost always such tasks are handled by curators and gallery directors. "When you write things down, you are forced to clarify your ideas," he says.

Another significant period he writes about is from the mid-1980s when he was coming to the end of a 17-year stretch sharing a studio with fellow sculptors Anthony Pryor and Augustine Dall'Ava. The trio had long shared a space in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, and then moved to Brunswick.

Geoffrey Bartlett, Messenger (1983) at NGV International. Photo: John Gollings

"We each needed to develop our own identity," he says. Looking at his work from that time, he sees he was reacting to what they were doing. If Pryor, for example, was making something in highly polished bronze, Bartlett would make something raw and aggressive in which the bronze was painted, denying the material. "I was separating myself from the seduction of the material," he says.

They all remained close friends, but he moved out and by the 1990s, his work became more his own. Another revelation working on 280205 has been that some of the sculptural language he thought he had developed post-2006 had in fact been there from the start.

In one work from 1974 - The red box (homage to Calder) - there is the frame around the whole that has, in recent years, almost become a Bartlett trademark. It was a one-off work in which the image is constrained within a tightly controlled space. "It creates its own little area of reflection," he says. "With sculpture, you work not just with the forms but with the space that surrounds it. The frames contain in the same way a stage contains the set and the actors. That is a recurring thing."

Another thing he has noticed is how his methods of making sculptures have become part of the aesthetics, giving viewers an understanding of their underlying structures. When he first had a studio in Fitzroy, what he made was dictated by having to climb two flights of stairs: he developed ways of knitting smaller pieces of wood and metal together so they could be disconnected for transport.

"I'd begun using nuts and bolts and brackets," he says. "Quickly they needed to become part of the work rather than just a connection. The aesthetics were evolving around the way the works were put together. Today, even now, I am really conscious when I use rivets or nails or whatever to put them together. I want those elements to mirror the structure within ... when I apply the lead sheeting with the nails that hold it on, the nails will follow the lines of the armature underneath."

As well as being self-revealing in this way, his work endures - materially and artistically. So it is little wonder he recalls, at one opening, a man accidentally knocking a heavy sculpture off a wall with his elbow while reaching into his briefcase for something. Its great weight in metal and wood sent it crashing to the floor. The man shot out the door, mortified - but the art was not even slightly damaged.

It went back on its hook, for everyone to see.

280205 is at McClelland Sculpture Park & Gallery until May 17, 2015