“The Bear’s Song,” Rick Bartow’s (1946 – 2016) posthumous exhibition at Froelick Gallery, features an array of portraits and masks rendered in two and three dimensions, using a slew of mixed media. Drypoint, lithograph, and venturesome monotype prints are included as well, many of which depict birds and human-animal hybrids. This show follows just over a year after “Crow’s Instructions,” another exhibition of Bartow’s work held by Froelick, which commemorated the artist’s high regard for regionally specific birds, such as sparrows, crows, and American kestrels.
Charles Froelick, Bartow’s dealer since 1995, once remarked that the artist grew up attending Sunday morning church with his Anglo mother, and afternoon pow-wows with his Native American father.1 Born in Newport, Oregon, Bartow completed a degree in secondary art education before he was drafted in 1969. During his two-year tour in Vietnam, Bartow earned a Bronze Star as a guitarist and singer in a G.I. band, playing first for officers’ clubs, later in hospitals, and finally for firebases where morale was low.2 Racked by PTSD after his return home, Bartow found solace in artmaking, and became a full-time artist in the early 1980s.
Some works in “The Bear’s Song,” such as the drypoint etching Magic Face (2011), are so freighted with symbolic density that they may intimidate.
Others, such as Little Bear Dream (2012), a sculpture assembled from a half-dozen discrete pieces of wood, enthrall us with a disarming anthropomorphism. This ursine figure’s mien is so enigmatic, and its composition so haphazard, that at first glance it tells us nothing.
Look closer: a tongue- or trunk-like appendage protrudes from the bear’s forehead. Could this be a metonymy for dream life, and the simulations of taste, sight, smell, sound, and touch that it entails? And what is that small nub of branch protruding from the left side of little bear’s pelvis? Is it a representational device? Did the artist neglect to remove it, or did he intend to leave it there? Perhaps Bartow’s sculpture suggests that little bears’ dreams–and their effects on little bears’ bodies–might not be so different from our own.
On the other hand, maybe the syntax of the work’s title (Little Bear Dream–a possessive apostrophe noticeably absent) implies that this is a representation of a human dream, one in which the dreamer finds their body transformed into a little bear’s. Then again, the sculpture and its title could be designed to emphasize the slippery nature of anthropomorphism, undermining any categorical distinctions we might make between human and animal behavior or phenomenology. The knife of comparison is often double-edged: If humans are in some way like bears and birds, those animals must also possess their own “human” qualities. Better still, what if we remove human experience from the equation all together, and conclude instead that we are confronting a motley collection of tree branches dreaming of being a little bear? Wouldn’t the implications be even more extraordinary?
The British painter Francis Bacon is persistently cited as one of Bartow’s influences, and the densely layered pastel colors in Bartow’s portraits do resemble Bacon’s anguished sitters. Yet Bartow’s characters are not dwarfed by capacious cubes and right angles like Bacon’s. Rather, they press against the confines of his surfaces, as in The Bear’s Song (2008), or disappear into exposed canvas, as in In The Bear Mask (2001). While Bacon’s personages notoriously occupy a precarious middle ground between figuration and abstraction, the extremities of Bartow’s figures often exceed the contours that describe them–see Dance Bear Mask (2014)–or inhabit multiple contours at once, as if they’ve been captured in a frenetic state of motion.
The exhibition at Froelick points to the privileged position that the monotype might hold in Bartow’s oeuvre (there are six currently on display). To produce a monotype, an artist applies ink or paint to a smooth, clean support (plexiglass, stone, or metal, for example) and then uses pressure (say, an etching press) to transfer the image to a sheet of paper. Monotypes are dissimilar to other forms of prints (intaglio, woodblock, lithograph) because they cannot be duplicated in an edition. After the first “good” image has been pulled, an artist may produce “ghost prints” using the residual ink left on the plate, but no two prints will be the same. Monotypes are also unlike paintings or drawings because the image-transfer process mitigates the influence of the artist’s hand (or brush) on the finished work. In producing a mirror image, and creating the potential for accidental slippage, smearing, and varying degrees of transference, the medium reflects Bartow’s interest in metamorphosis. I’d also speculate that Bartow was drawn to the notion that monotype images are inimitable, just as the experiences that transform a specific person at a discrete time in their life are entirely singular.
Bird Transformation I – For Jim (2007) demonstrates how Bartow could use an abstract monotype impression as a springboard for his figurative imagination. In this print, three bird-shaped silhouettes have been “subtracted” from an all-over mauve-grey wash, and then differentiated from one another with various admixtures of color: blue and lead-white on the left; moss green in the center; cerulean on the right. The central and right-hand birds both possess glowering eyes, pin-sized beaks, decorative crowns, and three legs between them (drawn in with pencil after the image was printed). The figure on the left is legless and nearly faceless, though a tiny “X” crosses its breast––perhaps a symbol of life’s final and most immutable transformation. All three birds are partially wrapped in halos of royal purple, drawn expressively in colored pencil.
Bartow’s work often exploits the arbitrary line that distinguishes a mask from a portrait, and underscores the fact that performance and the plastic arts, such as painting and sculpture, share the same mimetic power. Even the subjects of Bartow’s portraits regularly appear masked, as in Inside the Mask (2001). The “false face” depicted in this pastel and graphite composition seems at first to belie the genre’s imperative to capture and preserve a transitory likeness. What could be the purpose of replacing an abiding picture of the fleeting expression of one’s neighbor, sibling, or patron with a portrait of an already durable object––in this case, a mask? Well, judging by the metric of ephemerality, it may be the case that the many guises we briefly settle on and later discard are those most worthy of preservation. I wonder what relation Bartow’s interest in masks might have had to his own many-faceted identity: he was–among countless other things (a bear? a bird? a whole flock at once?)–a member of the Wiyot Tribe, a Vietnam War veteran, a musician, a contemporary fine artist, and a lifelong Oregonian.
1“His father was Native; his mother was Anglo. His mother took him to church on Sunday morning, and then he would go to pow wow in the afternoon” (Charles Froelick, Vimeo, 00:06:00).
2Marc Leepson, The VVA Veteran, “Artist Rick Bartow: A Finely Tuned Eye And A Deft Hand.”
“The Bear’s Song” continues through Jan. 29, 2022, at Froelick Gallery, 714 N.W. Davis St., Portland.