He may have a retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria but Geoffrey Bartlett's creative journey is far from over, writes Andrew Stephens.
A retrospective exhibition is an event of such weight that it might make an artist feel grey, earnest or (worst of all) venerable. And in the visual arts world's restrictive terminology "emerging" artist, "mid-career" artist, "established" artist a survey of past work might also look like the end of the road.
Happily, sculptor Geoffrey Bartlett's creative journey is continuing with vigour. He is certainly following no one else's imposed career trajectory. His bronze, wood and lead works are the sorts of sculptures that might not be easy to talk about but are always challenging and graced with a deeply human feeling.
It's no wonder his work has had such a lasting impact particularly in the public domain on Melbourne. It's no surprise, too, that, as well as the retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria's lan Potter Centre (its first big sculpture show at the Federation Square site), he's soon to be showing new work at the John Buckley Fine Art gallery.
Bartlett's name might not be immediately familiar, but most locals know his works: his whimsical The Messenger, for example, stood like a bathing anthropomorph in the austere moat on the right-hand side of the National Gallery of Victoria's St Kilda Road entrance for two decades (it is now in the rear garden, better displayed).
His Constellation (with Bruce Armstrong), which looks like serenading sirens on the prows of ships, guards the Yarra Turning Basin near the Melbourne Aquarium. More recently, his stunning, four-storey-high Aurora, with its glowing orb, has been installed majestically at the new end of Bourke Street in Docklands.
But the retrospective will let people experience a wealth of extraordinary, little-seen work that strongly relates to the big public commissions. Here, before a roaring stove in his enormous Collingwood studio, an 1880s slipper factory, Bartlett is having a quiet few hours between getting works moved out by an army of National Gallery of Victoria staff and going home to his two teenaged daughters. With almost five years of preparation during which time he has suffered the death of his wife, Vicki, and, more recently, his mother Bartlett, 54, has had a lot to deal with.
Installing an exhibition is stressful, too, even for one as seasoned as Bartlett: he's had more than 20 solo exhibitions, a welter of big commissions, many awards and dozens of group shows since he first set foot in RMIT's art school, at 18, in 1971. But putting together this retrospective of 20 years of his work, mostly from his own collection, has taken up a "huge amount of emotional time", he says in his gentle, measured way, tempered by a hint of larrikin's grin. "You wouldn't have it any other way," he says. "You are mindful of the fact that a lot of worthy artists don't get a show."
In this show of about 50 works, there's the monumental and the small-scale, the abstract and the figurative. Leading in from his energetic, almost aggressive works made in the late 1980s and his vast landscape assemblages from somewhat later, the show moves chronologically through various phases, such as his sleek, studded portrait series and a room devoted to documentation of his monumental public sculpture.
The final room is a reverential space of altar-like works: thick wood, anodised aluminium and a wealth of trademark sea-anemone surfaces. Bartlett's first big breaks came simultaneously in 1983 when The Messenger was unveiled in the National Gallery of Victoria moat by its then director, Patrick McCaughey; and when, the next day, Bartlett left for Columbia University in New York, the first Australian sculptor to receive a Harkness Fellowship, which gained him a masters. And the following year, he was the first Australian artist to get a residency at the Australia Council's Boyd studio in Tuscany.
Much has happened since and it's been a big job selecting works for the retrospective. "The best part of a survey show," says Bartlett, excited, "is that you get the chance to see this body of work together so you yourself can see the connections, the linkages; see where the strengths are. And that can help you formulate future direction." Even so, he's his harshest critic (other critics are thin on the ground, usually referring vaguely to a self-consciousness in the work or the occasional clumsy base). He looks back at The Messenger, for example, equivocally. "It was a major work to have at a young age," he admits a photo of him in front of the National Gallery of Victoria moat with McCaughey shows the young Bartlett looking bashful, but thrilled.
While there was a period afterwards when that sculpture "concerned" him, Bartlett points out that the necessarily long period of reflection has made him grow fonder of the piece. "It was an early work but it was important work," he says. "They are all stepping stones to somewhere, important links and phases." He reckons The Messenger has been given new life since it was relocated to the rear moat after the gallery's 2003 redevelopment. "It's not as prominent, but now people reassess and reconnect with it... it's a more contained space and it looks better and bigger."
Dr Ken Wach, an associate professor in the University of Melbourne's school of culture and communications, observes that there have been about six phases in Bartlett's style over the years. One of these was in the early '90s, when Bartlett's mind turned to "wider and more human concerns": his domestic life "had blissfully developed" and his work became less masculine and more psychologically rich. "All of his sculptures arise from a life of keen observations, an artistic imagination and personal ruminations." writes Wach in the exhibition catalogue."This is why the positive visual energy of their billowing and delicate skins also seems to radiate from an inner core"
Today, Bartlett takes me around to look at some of the works going into the retrospective at the lan Potter and, while there are some motifs (a prickly-pear surface here, a horn shape there and sharply contrasting textures everywhere else the most evident thing is Bartlett's commitment to his work. His strength and temerity in working through, and accepting, the anguish of the difficult bits is humbling.
For one piece, Sculpture at Ayers Rock, he explains how construction involved placing endless numbers of tiny polystyrene balls onto a larger form before it was cast into bronze. "You're probably getting the idea that I'm patient," he says. "Well I'm not patient. I do these things because it's contrary to my personality. I think I need to go where I'm not comfortable." There is no doubt he is deeply familiar with such a place, though not always by choice. He describes working on some sculptures and getting frustrated at his failure to resolve them. "You delude yourself and get despondent and wonder if there will ever be resolution." he says. Just to escape the torment, he puts the work away or covers it up and leaves it for weeks or months until his attachment maybe to a mere fragment has passed. "Sometimes the work that is the most lost is the one that's the best resolved at the end."
Tussling with his abstract sculptures isn't the only challenge: there's also the art world, which he describes as often "savage", especially for young artists who expect to achieve significant success by the time they are 25. "They think that success is going to stay with them," he says. "It generally doesn't. The strong ones keep going."
He's one of them. Though he says the "horrible 'mid-career' thing goes on for a long time". Bartlett has had patches when he hasn't sold much, but aside from periods when he was teaching he stopped teaching in 1997 after lecturing in sculpture at Deakin University, RMIT, Chisholm Institute and the Victorian College of the Arts and, from 1990 to 1994 as a senior lecturer in sculpture at Monash University he has always beavered away in his various studios.
"Some people say you've only got so many good shapes in you," he says. "I think it's silly to assume that it's infinite. But when you find a certain magic, you're wise to explore it, it can lead into different directions." At the same time, he says it's wise to resist becoming a slave to taste when
discovering a sculpture with instant appeal. "You hover there, hover in the glow," he smiles. He's had some work that has sold "like hotcakes" as well as some slow times. "Just when you think it's not going to get going again, it gets started."
Which is why he's so excited about getting the lighting right at the lan Potter, where he is hoping to buck the trend for subtle, unobtrusive glows around the work: it's going to be a sculptural element, dramatic and theatrical. "One of the pleasures of having a show at a place like the National Gallery of Victoria is that I can light it for the first time exactly as I want to," he says.
And there's no doubt: Bartlett will be making sure it's challenging and full of feeling. It's just the way he works.