Geoffrey Bartlett Sculptures

Intimate engagement: Geoffrey Bartlett's recent works

by Elena Taylor

Geoffrey Bartlett: Volume and Sensuality, Drill Hall Gallery, Australian National University, Canberra, 2004

In these works activated surfaces act as a device to draw the viewer closer, to be engaged in a dialogue of diminishing distances. To be consumed by detail, establishing a connection through a compressed intimacy of engagement. 1

Geoffrey Bartlett's recent works deliberately set out to seduce the viewer - making a direct appeal to the senses through the play of textured surfaces, vivid colour and elaborate patterning, they express the aesthetics of desire.

Over the past decade there has been a profound shift in the direction of Bartlett's sculpture. From the creation of open and transparent structures expressing movement and dynamic balance, there has been a move towards volumetric form, the simplification of composition and the focusing of the viewer's attention towards a close examination of surface. More significant has been the increase in emotional intensity and the artist's exploration of the expressive potential of material and form.

Bartlett's creative process is fundamentally driven by a dualistic approach - by the recognition of basic and irreducible principles, and the desire "to unite these diverse resonances into a cohesive sculptural presence." 2 The recent works abound in contrasts of form, texture, colour, between inside and outside, organic and inorganic, figuration and abstraction. Visual and emotional tension is generated through the juxtaposition of these opposing forces and is the source of the work's expressive power.

This dualism is most fully articulated, as both the subject and primary constructive principle, in Double Self-Portrait. Consisting of two heads, or two views of the same head, the artist rejects the depiction of physiognomic likeness in favour of a schematised representation of generic biological identity. The archaic frontality and formal relationship between the two heads is reminiscent of Henry Moore's King and Queen, thereby opening the possibility of considering the heads as representative of male and female principles. The work is also almost completely symmetrical on its vertical axis, creating the impression that one side could be the mirror image of the other. As a way to present two, usually distinct, images of the self, the reflected portrait seen within a mirror is a common device in painted self-portraits. These two views can refer to internal divisions or present the disparity between private self and public persona thus allowing a more complex understanding of individual identity. In its formal structure, Double Self-Portrait reflects this dichotomy, and each element is matched with its opposite: oval to rectangle, rough to smooth, solid to void, wood to metal and so on. Yet ultimately it is an image of great strength and power, in which these internal contradictions and tensions are firmly contained within the symmetry and stability of the overall design.

In another major recent work, Tower, the artist's aim was to explore how far he could take such juxtapositions and still maintain sculptural cohesiveness. The three elements: cast aluminum; wooden burl and constructed timber base represent the head, body and legs of a figure. The highly polished, refined and precisely articulated form of the head is in sharp contrast to the amorphous shape and rough dark wood of the ancient burl. The base, which corresponds to the figure's legs, is a wooden box-like construction that conceptually and materially functions as a neutral element between the highly charged head and body. Reflecting the dualism of mind and body, these diametrically opposed elements are held in visual equilibrium, neither given pre-eminence over the other, yet both essential components in the creation of the figure.

More intimate in size and mood, is an intriguing group of small sculptures which are placed upon high plinths and contained within cage-like settings. The motif of the cage is an important recurring element and Bartlett explores its ambiguous function as both protection and barrier, a way of keeping in and of keeping out. In String of Pearls, the rounded contours and textured surface of the softly painted form make an immediate appeal to the viewer's sense of touch. Yet this invitation to sensuous possession is simultaneously denied by the barrier of the cage. Resembling the receding lines of pictorial perspective, the cage's structure focuses the attention of the viewer firmly onto the object - paradoxically increasing its desirability while proclaiming its unavailability.

The framework of the cage is also a means of defining the space, both physical and psychological, surrounding the object. In The Performers, this space is severely compressed, almost claustrophobic, the two forms forced into close proximity to each other. The work recalls Giacometti's surrealist sculptures in which the cage creates a separate space for the object, sectioning it from the rest of the world, and providing a kind of theatre for the staging of the psychodrama within. Bartlett also explores the ambiguous nature of the cage in The mask, a work that, like Double Self-Portrait, plays with the idea of the inner and outer self, of what is revealed, and what is kept hidden. Resembling a piece of medieval armour, the mask is not so much a disguise, but a protection for the head while its placement within the cage is suggestive of psychological entrapment.

This protective function of armour is similar to that of the hard shells which protect the fleshy insides of mollusks and anemones. Bartlett has long been fascinated with such creatures and their combination of tough exterior and soft interior which he considers to symbolize the qualities of both vulnerability and resilience. This theme of extreme vulnerability is given a tragic-comic dimension in Pineapple beetle. The sculpture, whose two-legged form and knobby exterior brings to mind some kind of small animal, is precariously perched upon a high and narrow plinth. Alarmingly, this creature also appears to have been cut in half, its protective armour seemingly having been of little use.

Bartlett considers that the experiences of a trip to Europe in 2001 were the catalyst for a major reassessment of the direction of his work. Two closely related sculptures made immediately after the artist's return, The Rose The Bullet The Window, purchased by the National Gallery of Australia, and Angel at Moyston, show the artist's increasing sensitivity to materiality and the use of more clearly representational and symbolic imagery. Composed in a collage-like manner Angel at Moyston combines several distinct elements: window, log, ladder and above them all an angel's wing, "a metaphor for flight, movement, grace, freedom and spirituality." 3 The other elements can be read to represent male and female: their various connections, both precarious and stable, a meditation on the nature of such relationships.

While clearly drawing on an inner core of personal experience and emotions, Geoffrey Bartlett's intention is not the direct expression or transmission of such content. Instead, the artist seeks to engage the viewer in a dialogue, thereby creating a space in which individual meanings can be found. Through the use of abstraction and deliberately ambiguous imagery, the incorporation of symbolic elements and sensually perceived metaphors, the works set off a chain of imaginative associations and emotional responses. Bartlett's achievement is in this awakening of feelings and in the activation of an ever more passionate engagement with our world.

Elena Taylor
Curator of Australian Painting and Sculpture
National Gallery of Australia

  1. Artist statement in Geoffrey Bartlett, (exhibition catalogue) Boutwell Draper Gallery, Sydney, 2004
  2. Artist statement in National Sculpture Prize and Exhibition 2003, (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra , 2003, p. 11
  3. Artist statement in Bartlett, Geoffrey Geoffrey Bartlett: The Shell, Collingwood, Victoria, 2002