Origin of species

By GREG COOK  |  October 18, 2006

Rhapsody makes all the other works here seem like rehearsals. Bartlett begins with an overture introducing her themes: three shapes (circle, triangle, square), three sizes (small, medium, large), four kinds of line (horizontal, vertical, diagonal, curved), three ways of painting (dotted, freehand, ruled and measured), four motifs (house, tree, mountain, cloud), 25 colors. “I was just breaking up art for myself.”

She proceeds through numerous permutations. A mountain and cloud rendered in dots, ruled lines, Impressionist dashes. A photo of snow-capped Alps copied, then reduced to lines, shapes, dashes. Planes soaring over a mountain on a moonlit night. A black line wiggling down seven plates pushed together. A simple red house blown up to fill 49 plates. Random colored dots or dashes. Copied photos of houses and trees. Two trees in dashed lines across 49 plates, an imitation of action painting, as if each brushstroke were in quotation marks. Studies of color mixes. It seems to be the whole world — or at least the history of art — distilled to its elements. Your eyes bounce from plate to plate, comparing and contrasting.

Rhapsody climaxes with a cycle of black circles, triangles, and squares in various groupings and sizes that calls to mind Morse code. The coda is a sea of blue and brown rendered in dots or watery dashes. It feels like a camera panning up into the sky or out into the ocean at the end of a movie. You almost expect the word “Fin” to appear.

As Russell wrote, the work’s magnificent ambition is plain. Bartlett turned out to be charting a path out of the austere minimalist abstraction — all math, graph paper, rulers and protractors — that dominated ’60s and ’70s art. Rhapsody in particular provided a map for the loose, brash painting of the coming decade — pastiches of quoted images and styles, the return of representational imagery and a free hand, mixing abstraction with representation. (It’s also a reflection of Bartlett’s catholic tastes: “I don’t have a signature look and that’s disturbing to people.”) But confronting her early paintings three decades later, I don’t feel the excitement. Rhapsody seems an ambitious but dry academic essay. Maybe you had to be there.

ANGELA STRASSHEIM: Like something out of the dark American dreams of Edward Hopper and Alfred Hitchcock by way of Gregory Crewdson and David Lynch.

The young photographers in “reGeneration: 50 Photographers of Tomorrow” at the Art Institute of Boston could learn from Bartlett’s go-for-broke daring. This is the second half of a show organized by the Musée de l’Élysée in Lausanne. Organizers rounded up work by 50 recent graduates of top art schools from around the world to predict who will be photo stars two decades hence.

Among the more promising are Angela Strassheim, Ryo Ohwada, and Marla Rutherford, a Boston University alum. Strassheim, whose work was included in this year’s Whitney Biennial, presents a formal photo of a blonde girl in a diaper sudsing the hair of a woman laying in a tub. You need to see a group of her crystalline photos of Midwestern life to feel it, but her work is powered by an oneiric strangeness, like something out of the dark American dreams of Edward Hopper and Alfred Hitchcock by way of Gregory Crewdson and David Lynch.

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