Half a second is all it took Geoffrey Bartlett to jump at the offer of a lifetime. "I'm fortunate ... it's a rare opportunity," says the Melbourne sculptor chosen to exhibit at the National Gallery of Victoria. "Everyone's seen sculpture but not many people have seen it in the context of a gallery like the National Gallery of Victoria. The last show I can think of was Inge King 15 years ago."
Bartlett's The Messenger sat in the National Gallery of Victoria's St Kilda Road moat ntil it was moved to its sculpture garden in 2003. His illuminated Aurora graces the Docklands and his Obelisk stands tall atop a building opposite the Carlton Gardens. But the National Gallery of Victoria survey of 20 years of his career is a heavy-duty nod that many living artists will never experience. Bartlett, with 48 of his works, is poised to seduce the wider audience. "I want to show them the power and the potency of sculpture," he says at the cavernous Collingwood studio where he has created half a dozen new works for the show. "And I'd like to think this will generate a growing interest in sculpture at major public galleries."
Bartlett uses sensual surfaces to draw the viewer in to explore the work intimately. "Almost to the point where they lose focus. I want people to look at the work from some distance and to embrace its subject, but I also want to draw the viewer right in, as close to the surface as they can. Then the work becomes something else, quite abstract, quite separate from its subject. So you have this duality of experience. When it comes to the spectator, I want them to engage with the work in such a way that they may begin to explore aspects of their own personal identity."
To help this happen, he somehow frames each sculpture. "Painters have almost had a monopoly on the controlled space once we look at a good painting in front of us everything else is gone," he says. "We are entirely held and captivated within the frame of the painting. Sculpture often doesn't do that because it engages with the space around. It's very hard to generate that sense of illusion, to transport the viewer to somewhere else. One of the ways I do it is by the frame. I contain the person within this very precise grid. I want them to go on the same fantasy that a painter might lead them on, or the way a movie-maker might take you."
As a child Bartlett began creating everything from abstract pieces to billycarts with the discarded wooden packing crates his father brought home from Maples furniture shop. Time spent in his uncle's farming workshop added to his fascination for working with different materials.
The exhibition starts with works fashioned after Bartlett returned in 1986 from doing a Masters degree at New York's Columbia University. "Those works had a certain sense of fertility. They were almost pregnant, and at the time I was going through the process of having children," the 55-year-old father of two teenage daughters says. "I wasn't aware of that until a couple of years later, that the works had certain fullness about them, and they were about nurturing and enclosed spaces, about sheltering and protecting the inner form."