Nathan Bartley: The Salt People

by Courtney Andersen

My goal is not to create art, says Nathan, "Art is a means to developing as a human and to bridge gaps." 

The dualities or polarities that Nathan Bartley sees in life, and that appear in his autobiographical work, contrast and blur many opposing boundaries -art practice/life practice, precious/recyclable, east/west, abstraction/realism, body/mind, subject/object, artist/viewer, unity/separation. 

The cut and paste approach to Nathan's process is seen everywhere in his studio. Rather than planning and executing a particular scene, everything is in flux, often creating unexpected associations or broken narrative. Juxtapositions are more likely to raise a question than to answer one. Images are tentatively drawn and painted in black ink and charcoal with a quick hand, to be reviewed and possibly reworked later. The moments unfold without a real perception of a beginning, middle, and an end. The fresh energy of the creative process is more of a meditation, a blurring of mind and body, than a concern for a finished product. Nathan describes "time" as a construct which becomes an obsession for others.

Upon entering Nathan's studio I was bombarded with both images and non-images everywhere in the room. Some of the work was heaped up in huge piles and we sorted through some of it at random. He was excited about how he would have no idea how a picture might end up.  Images and abstract marks and shapes come from nowhere and from everywhere.  They could be cut up as collage items, pasted over with fresh canvas, or thrown back into the pile indefinitely. Frottage (placing paper or canvas over a textured surface and rubbing the surface with conte, charcoal, or graphite), popularized by the surrealist Max Ernst, is a technique Nathan also likes to use as a way of involving his immediate environment and creating a range of textures. 

One huge chest contained countless pictures, ads, and illustrations collected over the years to be considered as images for paintings or to be directly mounted on paper or canvas. 

We talked about our shared enthusiasm for the Pop artists such as Rauschenberg and Rosenquist and their process of juxtaposing disparate images with areas of pure abstraction. We agreed that Nathan's intuitive approach to recycling images is a similar process but is different from the self-consciousness of "Pop". Furthermore, Nathan is not using colour in the somewhat arbitrary manner as was the case with Pop art but is currently limiting himself to black and white which has a real rawness that doesn't seem to require the addition of colour to the surface. He feels that there is enough going on without bringing in another element, although a restrained use of colour appears in the occasional piece. He thinks about taking another look at colour sometime in the future, perhaps even consciously employing notions of colour theory. For now, black, white and all the values in between provide endless possibilities. I believe that colour would only slow down the immediacy of his movements.
When I asked Nathan about specific "meaning," he first evaded the issue by talking about what is referred to in the east as "the cult of intellect" - the pretensions around the western "Age of Reason" when everything was counted, dissected, and categorized, following traditional notions of hierarchy. He thinks of himself and his surroundings as subject to a set of circumstances that is largely outside the idea of "choice". However, within this existential universe where we are bounced around by circumstances shaped by frameworks, and social conditioning, we still have to make choices.

He denounces hierarchies. He feels that we are slaves to our conditioning and that there is a need to connect to an instinct to feel free - break out of frameworks, something Nathan calls a "state of no mind." In his works he seems to be attempting to break out of frameworks and search rather for an unfolding - a blurring of lines and divisions, or
polarities. Something Nathan calls "the dance".

Nathan talked about "the artist" and the production of an artwork - that the observer/viewer will live with the artwork much longer than the artist will for even if the artwork is destroyed, it will exist in reproductions. This places the artist as more of a cog in the unfolding of things (a set of circumstances); because ultimately the perception of the work, or "meaning" will change over time. Nathan attributes this idea to Marcel Duchamp. The artist does not have control over set meanings, expendability or value of their own work. Nathan is challenging the old concept of "artist -genius", and preciousness. He does not consider his process or his work precious, "Everything I do is practiceÖno pressure (it takes the).fear out of the process"

"The Salt People" is based on the Old Testament story "Lot's Wife", and the myth of "Orpheus and Eurydice". Both stories depict a dance between opposites; the moment of separation and the effort to heal that separation. When the Old Testament's "Vengeful God" gives Lot's family the chance to escape before destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, they are told not to look back. Lot's wife can't resist the temptation and looks at the "creator", only to be turned to a pillar of salt. The moment she turns her head she is on that dividing line. Her choice is a difficult one - a split second decision - the chance to survive with her family, or to briefly unite with her maker. The temptation was overwhelming, and the price was separation from everything for an eternity. Similarly, when Orpheus has finally located his wife in the underworld, and is escorting her out of the darkness, he can't resist the temptation to look back (away from the light) to see that she is still with him. One second of doubt and need for unity costs him an eternity of separation. The work expresses the choice of taking the straight and safe route and the cost of turning away from that, of being tempted to deviate from the rational and logical choice.

The female figure in "The Salt People" represents both Eurydice and Lot's wife, and the male figure represents both Orpheus and Lot. Their poses depict that second of intense desire to look, to connect at the cost of separation. This is the "in-between moment" between past, present and future, which is consistent with Nathan's process of working which precludes a beginning, middle and end. 
Besides addressing this polarity of unity/separation, Nathan sees these stories as metaphors for polarities in relationships between men and women (the dance). Thousands of years of circumstances have caused a separation of understanding between men and women, resulting in our failure as men, and the subjugation of women. He feels that it is time to close that gap and find unity once again.

Aside from the main theme and metaphor in "The Salt People", there are disparate images in the work which creates sub themes. The odd juxtaposition of Lot with a vacuum hose as a head could symbolize limitation of the senses. In both of the ancient stories someone is being required to forgo one or more of the senses. Lot's Wife is required to not look at God, and Orpheus cannot look at or listen to Eurydice. However, the meaning is left to the interpretation of the viewer. The viewer is 50% of the creative process, and of course, meaning can change over time.

This main theme can also stand in for many of the other polarities and conflicts in the world and the need for unity; that unity and "the dance" may require agreeing to disagree in trying to resolve issues but choices have to be made - and the temptation will always be there to make a destructive choice. 

I think that whether Nathan wants it, or not, we'll be hearing a lot about his work in the near future.