Some artists make you want to paint.  They are “painters’ painters.”  These artists understand painting from the inside, from the seeing side.  Their works are about the world and about meaning, but their images are simultaneously about seeing, about thinking visually and about the act of painting. Often they turn out to be great painters.  Certainly every great painter is counted among them.  (That’s a Venn diagram that I’ve just written, but I’ll leave it to the mathematicians to draw it.  Actually I think I’ve managed to put the idea into words just fine without the Venn.  Actually now that I mention it, Venn and mathematics has a lot to do with my subject, but it will have to wait.  And I’ve got to get out of these parentheses now.)

Jennifer Bartlett has a luscious painterly side (that may make her great someday, who knows?) and a hipster conceptualist/arithmetical side (that I’m sure is quite charming, too).  I used to hate her work.  (But that’s a long story.)

For now, I would have the reader concentrate on pure lusciousness.  It’s summer — a great time to be luscious — like a North Carolina peach. The image above is very large and it’s made with pastel.  So it’s a big drawing.  You know about Elaine’s big salad, this is BIG drawing.  And, well, for the artist, it’s like being able to walk right into the picture.

Bartlett’s imagery has meanings that might surprise some readers.  (They sure surprised me when I first learned about them.)  But while the casual reader is unlikely perhaps to pry into the matter as much as I did, I invite you to offer your ideas about what this picture (which is really two pictures in one) means to you.  I think the meanings that the reader imagines might prove more complex than even the author’s own motivations which are quite serious and deep.

Meanwhile, I think I’ll go draw.  This picture makes me want to pick up my tools!

[Top of the post:  Old House Lane # 16, 1986, pastel on paper, 44 x 60 inches by Jennifer Bartlett]

4 thoughts on “Boating (and Venn diagrams)

  1. This is an intriguing painting. You mentioned that the painting is quite large, but this digital version is relatively small, so I might have missed some details because my eyesight is not very good. This is what I see.

    The painting is divided into two parts. Right parts looks like a negative image and an alternative view on the perspective on the left side. I believe both sides represent the same view just from different points. Perhaps, the view on the right is how a being other other than human experiences the picture at the same moment when a person observes the view depicted on the left side. However, I think this is not the case. I think that two sides represent temporal rather than perspective differences.

    The view on the right is actually night time. On a beautiful summer eventing depicted on the left side, we see the nature in all its beauty: green vegetation, golden bark of the trees, blue sky, etc. We see all those objects because the sun reflects from them and we perceive myriad of colors. This is not the case at night. At night there is no sun, no colors, but what we see is the ultimate reality. We see glow of life that emanates from all things: trees, moths, and the boat itself. We see that the boat and the tree are ultimately the same.

    What were the author’s motivations?

  2. Yes, Bartlett’s picture is big. It’s pastel on black paper measuring 44 x 60 inches. I put a link to the source for the image I used in the “top of the post” section at the conclusion of the entry.
    The diptych form is significant for Bartlett given that she has used it innumerable times throughout her career (she’s 67 years old).
    Your comment that someone who is not human provides one of the viewpoints is, I believe, very perceptive. She may have aimed (intentionally or not) at creating an alter ego perception, one that represents the negative forces of human will. While I can’t really claim to know the artist’s motivations generally, and certainly not her precise aims for this picture, she tells Deborah Eisenberg, who authors a book on one Bartlett project called “Air: 24 Hours,” in an interview, about a horrifying childhood experience of abuse. Some of the abuse took place in a boat and boats figure as subjects in many of her works.
    You say, “At night there is no sun, no colors, but what we see is the ultimate reality.” That’s probably an accurate summation of that aspect of Bartlett’s past — a sinister darkness that she could not eliminate, its being an ultimate for her, but that she had to find passage through and beyond.

    A person who is unaware of Bartlett’s biography can well read this and other pictures in terms that are far removed from her subliminal meanings. I was shocked when I read her story, but I had noted a disturbing element in some works that were otherwise very beautiful. So it sort of made sense afterwards.

    How much role does an artist’s biography play in our understanding of art? Certain artists have very famous lives as well as art. Picasso, Van Gogh, Rembrandt have the reception of their works affected by the audience’s knowledge of their lives. But many artists — Vermeer’s a classic instance — have left hardly any footprint other than their pictures. Most old master’s personal lives are quite obscure, and we interpret their images according to different clues.

    I think there’s something very valuable about forming one’s own sense of what is happening in a picture, a personal interpretation that stands apart from these other interpretations and which derives from one’s own powers of empathy and experience of the world. To incorporate one’s own interpretation into one’s understanding of art — along with these other sources — enriches the work and gives it an immediacy that it doesn’t get by other means.

    Symbolism related to her abuse, as well as other biographical aspects of her painting, are treated in detail in Eisenberg’s book. But there’s many other ways of relating to the pictures.

    Anyway, I think it’s really marvelous the richness of explanation that you offer for this picture. You have a background in psychology, is that right?

    Thanks for commenting. I was hoping someone would respond to my invitation to comment. I think there’s a gazillion ways a picture like this one can be understood.

  3. Indeed, artist’s biography can help us understand their work better. I didn’t know anything about Bartlett, but, thanks to you, I can see what the author might have encoded in the painting.

    My experience with this painting was interesting. The very first second I looked at the image, the right side felt very cold. Also I noticed a face wrapped in cloth almost completely with only one wide open eye visible. However, I ignored my initial impression, I didn’t want to explore that dark part, I didn’t want to go there. Instead, I used reasoning to come up with some lighthearted story. This is quite illustrative. Sometimes it is best just to observe the work without conscious thinking to ease the transfer of the author’s message. However, sometimes the spectator might block that direct transfer either consciously or unconsciously for various reasons.

    Do you ever get this uneasy feeling when you forget something? Sometimes this feeling is very subtle, but I still can detect it. Sometimes I dismiss it and regret it later, while other times I listen and come back to pick up what I forgot. I believe something similar can happen with interpretation of art. Conscious thought can hamper the perception sometimes.

    Yes, I have a degree in psychology, but I work in other field now.

    Thank you for posting this painting and telling the story behind it. I like paintings such as this and your tree painting because they are not only aesthetically pleasing, but, just like projective test, they provide a medium of self-exploration.

  4. I think you have defined art — yes, this amazing and mysterious projective test that leads to self-exploration. We each need to know who we are. That’s really important! So, nature provides ways of nudging us along.
    I’ve known about Bartlett’s work for a long time and had an uneasy relationship with it. Over time, though, I find something very compelling in it, something beautiful, ambitious, gutsy and exuberant. Her most famous work is the monumental “Rhapsody,” which I’ve written about here:

    I’m glad this dialog brought you back to an earlier impression that you had side-stepped. Sometimes we get much more from pictures than we know.
    Thanks again for your always thought provoking comments!

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