Geoffrey Bartlett Sculptures

The art of refinement

by Caroline Field

Geoffrey Bartlett: Silver Cloud, Stonnington Stables Museum of Art, Deakin University, Melbourne, 2001

As is the case with many well established artists, Geoffrey Bartlett's recent work is the product of many years of dedication, experience, growth and refinement. Since the early 1970s, Bartlett has been developing his sculptural form, honing down the essence of fluidity and tension present in his works, and further revealing and enhancing the striking amalgam of textures and materials that characterise his evocative structures.

In many respects this ongoing process is reductive rather than additive, involving a gradual stripping down and discarding of embellishment. By paring down the form to its constituent elements, a simplification is achieved that provides a new grace and conceptual strength that invites the viewer to share in an object's purpose and personality.

In Bartlett's case, this perceived rationalisation has accompanied his artistic development, and rather than representing a new trend in itself, it charts the natural progression from flamboyant student to accomplished and experienced craftsman.

After completing his Diploma of Fine Art - Sculpture at RMIT in 1973, Bartlett joined forces with fellow sculptors Augustine Dall'Ava and Anthony Pryor and established a studio in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy. They shared this space and their inspirations, mounting several joint exhibitions, and it was during this seminal era that Bartlett developed his trademark fascination for pseudo machinery.

His first major commission, Messenger 1983 was awarded as a result of the Ian Potter prize, and stands prominently in the moat of the National Gallery of Victoria. Contained within this piece is a representation of The Letter, a sculpture created by the American Expressionist artist David Smith. In his student days Bartlett became influenced by Smith, and included this reference as a homage to the artist who introduced him to the incorporation of machine-like elements within his work.

On the day following the unveiling of Messenger, Bartlett, having been awarded the Harkness Scholarship, boarded a plane for New York to begin further studies in sculpture at Columbia University. During this period he became concerned by the apparent frontality of his pieces and was greatly inspired by the three-dimensional qualities inherent in the work of Henry Moore. This experience marked a trend away from purely linear structures and caused him to reassess the power of volume and mass.

Throughout his career, Bartlett has continued to develop and incorporate this concept into his work with great success, as exemplified in the striking dimensional depth of Silver Cloud 1995. Requiring exploration from every angle, its sheer scale and mass of form suspended in a refined state of balance entices the viewer to further explore its articulate and intriguing juxtaposition of materials and concepts. Constructed of river redgum interlocked into a welded steel cap, Silver Cloud tapers and curves, leading the eye along the harmonious path of metamorphosis as organic forms take on man-made geometric qualities. This work was purchased by Deakin University in 1998 and forms an integral part of the sculptural walkway at the Melbourne Campus.

Produced during the same period, Silver Rain over Halls Gap 1995 shares the common structural element created by a timber backbone fused to a metallic superstructure. However, in contrast to the smooth, peaceful and stoic demeanour of Silver Cloud, this piece engages on an entirely different level with its intricate and whimsical design and stark definition of disparate materials. Its fusion of organic and man-made elements creates great tension as it appears to have been created from the wreckage of various objects to perform some unknown but possibly sinister function.

To Bartlett, the almost inevitable refinement process is not synonymous with a reduction in either scale or potency. The powerful encapsulation of Empire State 2000 focuses and distills the energy of his earlier wild ambitions into a self contained, perfectly balanced structure combining whimsy and solid form within the familiar combination of man-made and organic components. Believing that as an artist's craft develops there will be fewer opportunities for spontaneity, Bartlett says that in order to be true to himself, he can no longer throw a piece together and hope that something magical will develop. With the surety of maturity and expertise, the artist is drawn to pursue a more considered approach to his work.

With a sensual curved form providing a harmonious yet contrasting relationship with its sharp wooden plinth, Awakening Desire 1996 makes a strong statement in support of a simplified and considered approach to sculpture. Marked by an innate and somehow precarious balance, this piece possesses an understated strength with its contoured aircraft like skin, and a magnificent sense of enclosed space that appears protective, as if the structure is quietly listening and acquiring knowledge.

Acrobat 1999 provides a similar sensation of enclosed space, on this occasion imbued with a sense of intimacy and privacy brought about by the possibly sexual, though androgynous, attraction of the two major forms. The tension created by the dynamism of the objects is enhanced by the smoothed roughness of their surfaces that suggests great physical strength through their pitted muscularity.

On a grander scale, the impressive eight-meter tall Beacon 1998 was commissioned by the Honeysuckle Development Corporation to provide a focus and point of reference for the re-development of the Hunter River in Newcastle. Initially conceived around the found object, sprocket, Beacon possesses a distinctive contrast in the surfaces of its various components. Marked interaction between texture, colour and form is amplified by the juxtaposition of solid forms that oppose the open web-like structures of the cage, and the work's sextant like outline. The viewer's perception of shape and substance alters dramatically from different perspectives, with forms that appear solid from one angle, revealing a delicate intangibility from another.

Bartlett intends to disclose, rather than hide the construction process, believing in providing the viewer with an honest impression of the nature of the structure. Beacon reveals its composition through exposed pop rivets joining the sheets of copper forming the sail, and the rough, purposeful welding evident in the sprocket gear and galvanized iron cage. By allowing the viewer to share in the nature of the work's joinery, Bartlett invites a greater sympathy with the piece, and renders the underlying form with a veracious clarity.

With artistic maturity comes a fresh approach in which a greater amount of the form is realised during the sculpture's execution, rather than as a pre-conceived intellectualised concept. Giving a greater authority to experienced instinct and intuition, this design refinement permits the artist to exercise gut instinct and allow a piece to develop in an unforced natural manner that encourages magnificent spatial complexity.

Moyston 1994 exhibits a dimensional definition difficult to imagine reduced to a paper sketch. Intricate and swirling bands unfold and occupy space with a considered yet flamboyant ease that is earthed by contact with its solid conical form and a reassuringly smoothed river redgum trunk. With a single point of ground contact, Moyston possess a different sense of balance to many of its two legged cousins, and although complexly lucid, it reflects a refinement of form through its self-containing outer bands.

Accompanying Bartlett's interest in exposing the skeletal structure of his forms is a desire to retain an element of mystery within his work. In a manner similar to Christo, he shrouds some aspects whilst revealing others, and intrigues the imagination to provide the missing details. Often this is achieved by covering portions of the sub-structure with metal and tracing the hidden frame with patterns of heavy nails or spot welds, providing a contoured impression of the structure. In tandem with Bartlett's use of self-enclosed shapes and forms, this developing style has altered the general aesthetic of his work and provides a new balance between solid and see through objects.

This technique is present in Fusion 2000, a large scale commission recently completed for the Australian National University. Bartlett has exposed the top and bottom sections of the enormous curved truss, whilst cladding the lower central section in spot welded metal, creating a striking solid object with the strength to stand out among the visual complexities of the lower floor of the building. Fusion exemplifies the sense of balance and tension inherent in Bartlett's work, with disparate objects and materials permanently suspended in a seemingly paradoxical struggle to maintain their ground over opposing elements.

For Bartlett, refinement is about accommodating changing methods of creativity, and creating room for new structures and statements. This satisfying process has seen the development of many new, and complementary aspects to his craft, and while containing links to the past, Bartlett's recent work continues to explore many new and successful dimensions. The art of refinement accompanies the unhurried course of natural progression that honours the past, and liberates the artist to pursue new horizons.

January 2001


  1. David Smith, in David Smith by David Smith, Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1968, p.130.

Caroline Field "Geoffrey Bartlett: The Art of Refinement", in Geoffrey Bartlett
Geoffrey Bartlett: Silver Cloud, Deakin University, Melbourne, 2001