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The faceted self

Rick Bartow exhibition haunts, amuses, inspires

Deer Spirit for Frank LaPena, 1999, Acrylic on panel, 24 x 24 inches

I’ve seen Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain at Gilcrease Museum twice now. Both times I wandered in awe through the exhibit, between the wooden, found object sculptures, large-format pastel drawings, and paintings. This is the work of someone who clearly brings his life experiences to bear, evoking feelings of whimsy and sadness, humor and fear.

A quote by Bartow on the museum’s wall reads: “We have to reveal ourselves. In the way that we reveal ourselves, we let our life shine.” 

Through his art, Bartow reveals a concept of the multiple selves that we as humans carry around, and the renewal and transformation that can occur over the course of a life. He shares multiple versions of himself: the Native American, the soldier in Vietnam, the husband and friend. 

The 108 artworks featured in the four-room Things exhibition include hand-carved masks, sculptures made with real teeth and found objects, Japanese-style printmaking, bright pastel works on hand-made paper, depictions of skulls, shadows, flowers, human figures that are part-animal, animal figures that are part-human, crows, and dogs; abstraction, expression, pain, joy, and humor. The body of work spans four decades, but is only a sample of the some three thousand works Bartow, a master of various media, has made in that time. 

In the show’s title piece, one of the oldest on display, we see layers of graphite thick and shiny, and a ghost-like face that appears to haunt the foreground figure. There are many lines where an eraser cut swaths through the dark graphite lines. Of erasures, Bartow said, “One thing I hold true is that we’re made up as much of what we’ve lost as of what we’ve gained. And what is erasing but a metaphor for that?”

His metaphors are made easier to see and understand by the curators’ thoughtful arrangement of the works by theme: self, gesture, tradition, transformation, and dialogue. While the explanatory cards offer guidance, the work is open to personal interpretation. Many of the pieces feature gaping or open mouths. I frequently saw these figures as screaming, or gasping, until Laura Fry, the Gilcrease Museum curator of art, suggested they might also be laughing, singing, or shouting. “Rick Bartow's bold colors and sweeping lines reflect both the pain and joy of his own life experiences. These artworks are intensely personal,” she said. “Yet Rick also invites viewers to bring their own meanings to his artwork.”

Some of the images disturb. In the exhibition’s entry hallway, “Nak May Kway Let Way 6” (“My Crying Eyes For You 6”) depicts a dark image of a man masked in caliginous pigment and shadow. His features are barely discernable, except for his piercing, white, challenging eyes. It is one of six paintings Bartow created in response to being given five Native American skulls that had been in a museum’s collections storage. 

Other images evoke laughter. If you kneel down to look at one wooden sculpture in particular, you will see something inside its mouth you otherwise wouldn’t. It was made that way for a child’s gaze. On the “Dialogue” card nearby, Bartow’s quote reads: “Is there a lesson to be learned? There’s a time for entertainment. Children understand. Adults muck it up.”

Animal faces layered over human faces, human faces blended with animal faces, animal heads on human bodies—these remind us of the interconnectedness of being. In the room showcasing his new work, yellow articulates illness and expunging illness, a reference to his most recent stroke. Wooden and depicted masks cause the viewer to consider how a mask transforms the wearer, and for what that mask might be a metaphor. Bartow pays homage to Da Vinci, to Gustav Klimt, and to various artistic traditions including African, Maori, Native American, Japanese, and European.

Jill Hartz is the co-curator of the exhibition and executive director of the Schnitzer Museum of Art from which the exhibition hails.

“[Bartow’s work] touches deeply emotional, sensual, and spiritual dimensions,” Hartz said. “His art, as he says, is a means of therapy, and it’s exciting to see art practice as fundamental to survival, as a way of exorcising demons, finding balance and acceptance in life. He affirms our connection to nature and the cosmos, why Native cultures are important in teaching us how to live fully and harmoniously with one another and with the land today. He reminds us of the joy that looking at art can bring us, and he makes us laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time.”

Things is a new step for Gilcrease Museum, which will now include solo shows by living Native American artists in its exhibition rotations. 

“Thomas Gilcrease sponsored many living artists during the time that he was collecting,” Fry said. “With this and upcoming exhibitions, we are hoping to honor his legacy as a champion of living Native artists.”

After you see the show, if you’ve got some cash to spare, purchase the exhibition catalogue book in the gift shop. You’ll want to look at these images for years to come.

For more from Liz, read her article on the effect of Oklahoma's revenue failure on arts funding.

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