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Heartland: Paintings by Bo Bartlett, 1978-2002
May 28-September 21, 2003
A summer exhibition at the Greenville County Museum of Art takes painting to a grand scale. Heartland: Paintings by Bo Bartlett, 1978-2002, opens May 28 and continues through September 21, 2003.
Bartlett is a Georgia native who studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and worked closely with Andrew Wyeth while finding his own voice as a modern-day realist painter. His works, often stretching well over eight feet in width, offer realism that is enhanced by surreal light. His metaphorical subject matter has in recent years been focused on family and home. (RIght: Bo Bartlett, Homecoming, 1995, oil on linen, 58 x 72 inches, Collection of the Columbus Museum)
Bo Bartlett was born forty-eight years ago in Columbus, Georgia. As a boy, he toyed with the idea of becoming a preacher, and he admits that his first attempts at drawing took place while he was in church. There remains a deep religious symbolism in many of his paintings, although Bartlett says that spirituality is a layer -- with cultural symbolism and art history -- that he tries to build upon.
Many of Bartletts works grow out of everyday happenings. Homecoming (1995) -- a traditional bonfire with the football players and their elegantly dressed dates -- is said to be a tribute to his wife Melonie, who was his high school sweetheart. The exhibitions title image, Heartland (1994) depicts Bartletts young son Eliot, pulling a red wagon laden with sticks.
"I was looking for a subject that was highly personal but also iconic," Bartlett said of the painting. "It wasnt simply a portrait, but a visual metaphor."
The painting Bone (2000) depicts his oldest son, Will, carrying the mandible of a whale on his shoulder. Bartlett says he and Will were wandering a beach in Maine when they found it. The painting that resulted, at eighty-six by one hundred inches, certainly gives testimony to the size of the decaying mammal. The colors, the detail, and the imagery also capture the magic of Bo Bartlett.
Greenville is one of five venues for the exhibition, which was organized by the Columbus Museum. The exhibition and its accompanying catalog were made possible by friends in Columbus, Georgia: to celebrate the spirit of the Columbus Challenge -- a dynamic partnership between the citizens of Columbus, its city government, and the State of Georgia -- which raised $94 million to ensure that the cultural arts will forever be the heartbeat of that vital community on the banks of the Chattahoochee River; and to honor the remarkable talent of Bo Bartlett, a native son of Columbus.
The exhibition catalog will be for sale in the Museum Shop during the exhibition. Related events include a gallery talk in the exhibition on Sunday, June 8, at 2 p.m. Guided tours of the exhibition will be available free throughout the summer to groups of ten or more.
The following related article is reprinted with permission of Mary McCarthy and the Greenville County Museum of Art:
BO BARTLETT: FROM THE HEART
by Mary McCarthy
Bo Bartlett and his son Will were wandering a beach in Maine when they came upon the whale mandible that is the young man's burden in the painting Bone. The image embodies many of the qualities that set the artist apart: it is a striking example of realism, and it is created in grand scale. But it is also imbued with metaphorical layers and imagery, the special magic of Bo Bartlett.
Bartlett will be in Greenville May 27 for the opening of a mid-career retrospective titled Heartland: Paintings by Bo Bartlett, 19782002. The survey includes paintings that date to his days as a student at the Pennyslvania Academy of the Fine Arts and to the years he worked with Andrew Wyeth during the production of the documentary Snow Hill. But many come from the 1990s and into the new century, when Bartlett says his work "took a slow turn towards imagery that is less angst-driven, less about the horrors of the world."
These are the paintings that celebrate family and emotion: paintings like the title work, Heartland, which depicts Bartlett's younger son, Eliot. "I was looking for a subject that was highly personal but also iconic," the artist said in a recent interview. Eliot, who posed for his father regularly, had a red wagon, and Bartlett had been working with a bundle of sticks for some other paintings. When the boy was posing one morning on a grassy hill, he put his hand over his heart, and the elements all came together.
"These paintings aren't simply portraits," said the artist. "They're visual metaphors." The switches came from childhood recollections -- when a boy is bad, he's told to wait for his father; when he's really bad, Mom goes to find a switch. Bartlett's childhood memories center on his home in Columbus, Georgia. He left when he was only eighteen, traveling to Florence, Italy, to study painting. He returned a year later to marry his childhood sweetheart, Melonie. They moved to Philadelphia, in part because Bartlett wanted to be near the painter he most admired, Andrew Wyeth.
Bartlett's first opportunity to meet Wyeth met with frustration. He traveled to the Wyeth home for an appointment, but when he came upon Betsy Wyeth, she said Andy wasn't around. Bartlett returned to Philadelphia and enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy; he also studied privately with realist Nelson Shanks during this time, and he took courses in anatomy. Bartlett broadened his education later in New York, where he earned a certificate in filmmaking -- an achievement that would turn out to be an important link to the painter he wanted to study.
In the early 1990s, Betsy Wyeth saw an unfavorable review of a Bartlett exhibition in the New York Times and called to invite him to Chadds Ford for a visit -- and perhaps a bit of sympathy. The Wyeths offered encouragement and bought several of Bartlett's paintings. The young artist remained uncertain about painting as a career, however; he was leaning toward a pursuit of filmmaking at the time. When the Wyeths talked about their vision of the video biography Snow Hill, Bartlett jumped at the chance to participate.
He spent most of the next three years working closely with Andrew Wyeth. "It was an ideal situation," says Bartlett. "I spent parts of every day with him. His message to me was an important one: 'Don't worry about what people say; just keep painting.'"
And he has. This retrospective exhibition features narrative works as well as genre paintings; many are rendered in the epic proportions for which Bartlett is known. Andrew Wyeth is represented, too. Painters Crossing offers a look at Andy and Betsy Wyeth walking the countryside, while Wyeth's model Helga follows a few steps behind.
Heartland: Paintings by Bo Bartlett, 1978-2002 will travel to Seattle, Santa Barbara, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts after its time in Greenville. The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated color catalog, which will be available for sale in the Museum Shop.
Related events include a gallery talk with Curator Martha R. Severens on June 8 at 2 p.m.
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