Image Worlds

by John K. Grande

Nathan Bartley’s ink on fabric paintings evolved out of a wide-ranging visual arts background that has included drawing, painting, and making organic black walnut wood sculpture. With the new works, the act of building up layers, referencing images that build a visceral, 3-dimensional effect involves overlay and sequencing. It is what makes these works feel closer to Robert Rauschenberg’s multi-media way of making art. Here is an art that challenges us with its references - historical, Pop, high modernist and contemporary. These ink on fabric paintings are like assemblages situated in a neutral space. They are an expression of the intercultural, multi-source era we now live in. The choice of materials, objects, cuttings, segments, combined with dry brushwork is aleatory. Chance and random choice play a role in what is included in each work. Bartley’s process enables the viewer to participate through the act of interpretation. Above all, the accessibility to materials and media, the fluid interpretation is what draws us in! These multi-media paintings are less about the concept than building a narrative that reflects the age we now live in. The effects are like image splicing, an interweave of tactile, visual and imagistic effects.

Already in the Salt People  show held in Nelson, B.C. (2007), Nathan Bartley was hybridizing the Old Testament story of Lot’s wife with Eurydice and Orpheus, ancient Greek sources. Synthesizing historical and cultural cues is simply what Bartley excels at. This synthesis is partly a result of the artist’s wanderings, his residencies in Africa, India, Taiwan, Japan, and the Yukon Territory. As technology has advanced art’s language, artists like Nathan Bartley have transferred their curiosity and instinct for exploration, weaving together connective and relational aesthetic ideas. These establish a sense of universal simultaneity. He builds a visual counterpoint using a combination of drawings, recycled sections of paintings. Images are reflected on, then altered, combined and “influenced by everything”.

With the In the Pink series, Nathan Bartley, like Francesco Goya, creates a series of parables on contemporary life that can verge on satire.  A dream image Bartley once saw is brought to life. We see an a man sitting atop a pyramid of round, soft, repeated forms.  Under this, there are vertical black lines. These lines could be threatening, challenging the beatific state of this person perched on high. Bartley recounts the source for this painting was a dream he had of floating on multi-coloured balloons in the Hochelaga Maisonneuve district in the east end of Montreal. In the dream what appeared to be a state of heightened awareness or even rhapsody, soon changes as the balloons break. This man is lowered, balloon-by-balloon until he is on the ground, being scolded by an old lady for not “sharing” these objects of joy. He is condemned to blow up balloons in a makeshift garage as punishment for his rhapsody. 

Another work from the In the Pink series is hilarious, even as it tells a moral tale of life in our times. A man in a tracksuit with an Ipod and headphones sits on top of a pyramid of matter. There are vague images of skulls beneath him. What looks like a symbol of power, of the ego being in control, is counter-balanced by our seeing the man is preoccupied with an illusion of power. He is actually sitting on a raft that recalls Théodore Géricault’s (1791–1824) Raft of the Medusa. Nathan Bartley’s raft is out of control, depicts a potential and delirious moment of one human’s dilemma, their idea of what they think they are and where they actually are, is described simultaneously. 

The choice of the title In the Pink for this recent series implies having everything. One of these mid-sized image-layered works, with its decorative brushwork and details and underpainting of the applied canvas cut out elements, presents a woman who is on top of this agglomeration of image references. She is golfing. The implication is of a member of society that is self-absorbed, achieving a prescribed goal. We see a man teeing off in the painting “Hole in One”. The goal here is a skull, and the painting initiates a strand of thought about our perception of life, our engagement with the illusions in an age of distraction. 

There are ghosts of the media in Four Horsemen of Apopalypse, a painting that includes a reference to the Florentine painter, di Bondone Giotto’s remarkable and beatific landscapes where God speaks through the paint, where an angel can arrive as if from nowhere and where classic architectural elements sit on rocky hillsides. As with Giotto’s painting, Nathan Bartley plays on the tension between flat, descriptive surfaces and volumetric dimensionality with this painting. He builds a more media inscribed resonance, like Daniel Richter might achieve in this painting. Another painting titled Blind Man’s Bluff, describes the quantum principle, enacting it as if to say we create the dimensionality with what we observe. We usually attach our associations to an object, even if it is a painted object rather than the real 3-dimensional thing. Bartley’s multi-media works are sculptural, for they seek to animate the 2-dimensional plane, even to crowd it with potential symbols, images, and diverse elements. This crowding of figures and images resembles what Peter Brueghel the Elder often did in his fantastic paintings. The condensed image layering becomes a metaphor for a society where we crowd our life with images and objects. The images can be on a screen where the crowding is ethereal, or in reality where the density is exists in the form of physical objects). The paintings we witness here, are involved in building metaphors for art.  The raft-like inverted pyramids are a reference to the act of painting. These paintings are about painting as a way of living for the artist and we find inset traces and references to the high modernist, diachronic conception of what a painting should do. For modernists from the Clement Greenberg school there was always an object and subject tension. Sometimes the edges would be left blank, or illusions of space would be created, and abstraction would develop in relation to the artist’s own body action, his body being a medium between viewer and reality, honing it all into a purity. 

In our times, images themselves are conceived “in our minds” as objects or potential realities. Nathan Bartley tips his hat to the high modernists while equally building a visuality we read as potentially dystopian, media-saturated, and at odds with a singular truth. And so these paintings reflect an inter-cultural,  geo-specific intertwining of sources, of histories. The life raft is art, and art is a stage. What seems to be anti-structural is actually structural, but the structures are a myriad of interwoven sources and images. Nathan Bartley builds his signs unconsciously, with a spontaneous and enigmatic reactivity. The content is the process he uses.   

Integrating ink brushwork onto fabric, Bartley will paint and select the elements he likes. Further line work will highlight features that become significant as he draws and paints from original maquette-like drawings.  This is visual editing, a selection and choosing of what stands out, or what gradually resonates in the artist’s mind. Some parts are removed, some painted over, still others are given a loose edge with dry brush. Sometimes the artist stamps with Styrofoam consecutive, repeated images or markings. The repeated action is synonymous with immediacy and process. What will emerge is never clear until the border tape coverings are removed. Other elements are cut and pasted onto an underpainted surface. Some brush and spray is added when needed. Overlay plays a role, as does underpainting. Both can change the tonality of a singular element in a painting. Selection implies that memory plays a role in the process. Finally all elements are situated in these scenarios, glued in place. Bartley will complete some aspect of a work flat on a table or floor surface, still others on the wall.  

We feel a harmony in these freeform visual stories. They are less about impact than the unfolding of mystery. There are no answers and nothing is revealed. A door opens to many interpretations…  To create these overpopulated image worlds, reveals both sides of the mirror, and a sense of emptiness becomes apparent, a place for the spirit. 

John K. Grande

JOHN K. GRANDE, has contributed his views on art to a variety of arts publications including ArtforumSculpture (USA), Vie des Arts, British Journal of Photography, Vice Versa and Landscape Architecture.  Grande’s poetry collaborations include two with West Coast artist Arnold Shives - The Landscape Changes (Gaspereau/Prospect Press) and Homage to Jean-Paul Riopelle, Black Peat with Alfio Bonanno (The Print Factory, Ireland 2012) and Grass Grows with Thomas May at the Grass Blade Institute in Nuremburg, Germany (2013). Recent curated shows include Eco-Art at Pori Art Museum, Finland and Kathy Venter; Life at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Toronto.