Jennifer Bartlett

at Richard Gray Gallery, through May 6

I admire painters, especially these days. They show a healthy bad attitude by continuing to work in a medium the art-world cognoscenti have been administering last rites to for the past couple of decades. And among this never-say-die group, it’s hard to think of an American artist more committed to painting than Jennifer Bartlett. Her most recent series, “24 Hours: Elegy,” currently on view at the Richard Gray Gallery, evidences her continuing commitment to the process of painting at the same time it reveals her view of painting as a singularly introspective, even narcissistic endeavor.

Inspired in part by James Joyce’s modernist epic Ulysses and its focus on a single day, “24 Hours: Elegy” attempts to encapsulate 24 hours of the artist’s life. The work displays Bartlett’s signature obsessive, almost mechanical systematization of experience, which takes remarkable stamina, artistic discipline, and heavy-duty ambition to achieve. But the narrative that’s the product of this systematization in “24 Hours: Elegy” is so personal that it’s questionable whether Bartlett ultimately delivers on the lyricism promised by the subtitle, “elegy.”

In this series Bartlett returns to certain strategies of presentation she manipulated and developed in her earlier work. In the 70s Bartlett’s paintings were often conglomerations of enameled steel plates, each overlaid with a pale gray grid; these plates were hung on gallery walls in a floor-to-ceiling room-sized grid. Some were of enormous scope–Bartlett’s 1975 painting Rhapsody consisted of 988 plates. In Rhapsody her connection to minimalism was evident in her use of serial images and the arrangement of the series on a grid. But Bartlett also included figurative imagery in Rhapsody, which offered a radical challenge to both minimalism and the dominant New York aesthetic of purist abstraction. Where minimalist painters such as Agnes Martin and Robert Ryman concentrated exclusively on the internal purity of the two-dimensional grid, Bartlett began investigating the grid through the various figurative images she placed in or on top of it. Because of her interest in the figure, Bartlett’s work of the late 70s was identified with “new image” painting. Yet for all the “figurativeness” of her work, the minimalist elements of the structuring grid and the sequence of images remain. Bartlett has also investigated other media besides painting; her 1981 series of drawings “In the Garden” explored ten different media from pencil to gouache.

In Bartlett’s own words, “My idea was: 24 hours, house, bunny, clothes, grid” in this series. She’s chosen one composition for each hour of the day and rendered it three ways: in a painting, a pastel, and a charcoal or crayon drawing. The Gray Gallery show includes work corresponding to each hour in the span between 5 AM and 4 PM (the other hours of the day are in a San Francisco gallery). Each drawing or painting in “24 Hours” is rendered on a gray silkscreened rectangular grid measuring 60 inches on one side (one inch for every minute of the hour) and 42 inches on the other. The grid underlying each image then functions almost like a clockface, with each square representing a unit of time. Originally Bartlett produced 36 images for each of the 24 hours; from this group she selected 3 “which seemed appropriate” to represent that hour. The 72 works that make up “24 Hours: Elegy” are a composite of a day spent at home. Several elements reappear throughout the cycle: articles of children’s clothing, a clockface that marks the hour, and bunnies. So each image in the series is rigorously ordered on several levels–the grid structure, the one-hour unit, the setting in the home, the configuration of similar objects–before it’s ever drawn or painted. These are the elements of Bartlett’s visual daybook, and the means by which she forces herself to become systematic about a highly subjective painterly investigation.

The three-work set entitled 7 A.M., White Gloves presents an identical scene in oil paint, in pastel, and in crayon: a couple of bunnies in a shallow box, their clumsy white forms balanced by a pair of small white gloves and the usual clockface registering the hour. Bartlett exploits each medium’s differing potential for representation–in the painting, composed of neo-pointillistic dots carefully arranged within the silkscreened grid, colors are limited to tones of black, gray, red, and white; the crayon drawing is a gestural network of horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines manipulated to reveal forms and echo the grid; and the pastel drawing introduces color and superimposes the images over another, gestural grid. As in the rest of the series, the drawings of this set do not appear to serve as studies for the painting. Instead the image in each medium seems a deliberate, painstaking attempt to grasp some aspect of the experience it contains–an experience that remains elusive, however. Bartlett also tends to leave a square of the upper left-hand corner of each piece blank, or to paint it in sharp contrast to the rest of the composition, as a reminder of the omnipresent grid. She’d like everything in this world to be calculated, quasi-mathematical, right on time.

The bunny appears throughout the interior of a house and occasionally grazes outdoors. 10 A.M., Grass finds our bunny in tall, blowing grass, placed diagonally to a prim gingham child’s blouse. My favorite piece of the show, 3 P.M., Chair, seems to be the only instance in which Bartlett allows herself to doubt the grid as a systematizing structure. In this painting the bunny is placed next to a distinctly Matisse-like garden chair, but these objects are barely discernible under a heavy white grid that eclipses every other form and color. Only a lumpy sweater resting on top of the grid is completely visible. In this piece the grid has become swollen and opaque, and its order obliterates; here Bartlett allows her own system of structure and control to engulf the focus of her analysis. This self-conscious and self-destructing image is her single acknowledgment of the limitations of her orderly method.

So what is it we’re to take from Bartlett’s series? Bartlett has spoken of the “experiences of a dreadful childhood” and the absent figure of a murdered child as having informed these images, and she’s identified the bunny as “the soul of the child.” It’s possible to take Bartlett at her word and read this series as an extended act of mourning some individual, perhaps a child, of importance to Bartlett’s own life or to the lives of those around her. This conclusion would entail a symbolic reading of the recurring images in the series. But I would have to question the act of assigning iconographical and deeply autobiographical meaning to these images. The meaning of these works and the narrative they generate would then be specific to Bartlett or to a small group of people in her life. Though it may sound callous to say it, such meaning isn’t always terribly compelling for the rest of the world. I think painting can and should offer more.

If we outsiders really want to, we can find a more convincing meaning in “24 Hours: Elegy”: a Proustian sense of loss for the stability and centeredness of childhood. Bartlett’s attempt to control discrete units of experience may be a response to the endless chaotic flow of memory, yet she believes the past might be recoverable in a piece of children’s clothing or in the possible allegory of innocence and loss played out by the bunny. So while Bartlett may aim for Joyce’s encyclopedic investigation, her project ends up seeming more like Proust’s, whose art was also fueled by narcissistic impulses.

I think I dearly want to find in these images an allegory of lost childhood. Maybe the bunny could also be seen as a symbol of spring, of birth and proliferation. But then again, let’s face it, in our culture the symbolic weight of a bunny is pretty slight. A bunny is a bunny is a bunny; overall it’s a darn silly image. Arrested in its movement, positioned over, through, and under the dull gray grid that anchors each of these compositions, the bunny is a linchpin of meaning that resists any attempt to define it, pulling away from the viewer.

In the final painting of this show, 4 P.M., Big Bunny, Bartlett places the bunny dead center. Balanced on top of a white grid and pinioned by a bright cap, a chair, and the omnipresent clock, it seems to lock its gaze with the viewer’s. Positioned at the entrance to the gallery, it’s both the first and last image the viewer sees. Like this rabbit, Bartlett’s work resists narrative or iconographic meaning; our great desire to read meaning into these images–a desire the artist shares with us–is confounded by the seamless continuum of time and experience. Each configuration of images floats as a signifier but also retreats back into the flow of time that “24 Hours” as a whole overwhelmingly manifests. The narrative impulse, which would force an order on unruly experience, is simply not realizable here despite the sheer volume of work Bartlett has devoted to it. For most of us, however, time in our homes is marked by station identification and other equally inane occurrences, so Bartlett’s exhaustive effort to work through experience otherwise and as a painter is courageous at the very least. “24 Hours: Elegy” may be an effort doomed to a degree of failure because of its self-centeredness, but the attempt is inspirational.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Dee.