At the Intersection of Emotions: Jill McCorkle on the Art of Bo Bartlett
Nostalgia is a word people often shy away from, seeing it as a sentimental, romanticized representation of what was, instead of relying on the original definition of pain and ache—a wave of home- or time-sickness for what is past. That kind of longing—the blend of comfort and joy with sadness and loss—is what I am most drawn to as a writer and reader, and I am constantly trying to seek balance between the two. I am drawn to literature and music and art and every day moments that make me aware of such an intersection of emotion. The art of Bo Bartlett places me in that very satisfying intersection.
My first experience with Bartlett’s wonderful art was when his painting Young Life was used to illustrate a piece I wrote for the Oxford American. I was struck by the sharp, beautiful clarity as well as the direct gaze all three subjects projected; they are all looking, and yet, it seems each is in a very different place emotionally. At first glance it seems the equivalent of a simple coming-of-age story, the attention to the physical details of the setting striking and memorable—the truck and deer on top of it, the brilliant blue sky. The young boy stands removed from the couple I assume to be his parents, his stick pointing in the opposite direction of his father’s gun. If I were to write the short story to accompany it, I would be drawn to the three different points of view of the moment. The awareness of three separate experiences within one frozen moment creates a quiet but powerful tension.
Bartlett often captures a moment in time that is easily nostalgic—a homecoming bonfire or Christmas pageant—and yet what is consistent in his work is the presence of the other; he encapsulates the comfort of tradition but also infuses it with a wisdom or dark knowledge of what is to come. I have not studied art. I only know what catches my eye and pulls me in so that there is no looking away. I am drawn to sharp contrasts of light and dark, both literally and figuratively. I am drawn to suggested narrative, and Bartlett’s work is filled with narratives. In Homecoming there seems to be a novel’s worth—the referee in conversation off to the side, the group of people in the distance, the red convertible awaiting the exit. The fire is just large enough to suggest that things might leap out of control, and the varying emotional expressions of the three couples suggest the grown-up years ahead of them.
It is not lost on me that Bo Bartlett shares the hometown of one of my favorite writers. Carson McCullers also was born in Columbus, Georgia, and she too could create those pangs of time- or homesickness with her writing while also conveying the a wisdom and knowledge of a much broader story. You only need to read The Heart is A Lonely Hunter to witness this. That novel, like many of Bartlett’s paintings, captures individual narratives that each, like separate instruments, blend together to create the symphony of the whole. McCullers managed to give every character a voice, and I feel the same is true of Bartlett’s subjects. McCullers hit chords of the grotesque and fantastic while remaining firmly rooted in a recognizable setting. Bartlett accomplishes this same feat in his painting Leviathan, a retelling of the biblical Jonah story within a wholly contemporary setting.
One of my favorite recent paintings by Bartlett is Open Gate. I was immediately drawn to the image of the tricycle and how, as with Eggleston’s famous photograph, the object itself conveys the child’s point of view. The young boy’s head is turned, looking out the gate, which serves as the other focal point. There is such power between the two points—where the boy is in the present moment and where he might be within seconds. The painting is filled with anticipation and is perfectly perched in that precarious place between what is known and what is unknown. I felt torn at first glance between a child’s will and a parent’s control. The gate is open. Something will happen. I can’t see the expression on his face, only the direction of that wheel. I saw this beautiful image and could not get it out of my mind. The painting pulls us in and makes us remember what it felt like to be a child and see that open gate while at the same time lending the parental perspective of witnessing your child seeing the open gate. There is exhilaration. There is fear. There is a time-sickness for when you yourself first glimpsed the gate and also for the time before your children first glimpsed it. The seemingly simple composition, like that of Young Life, is anything but. Open Gate filled me with so many conflicting emotions. It was only later upon reading about the image that I learned Bartlett had lost a child, and yet, the narrative still is one that provides balance between that homesick feeling for a particular joy or comfort and the solemn knowledge of what the future might hold.
Bartlett’s work is inspiring, prompting viewers to reach back into their own trunk of memories for those that have a similar power. In The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, McCullers wrote beautifully and memorably about the imbalance between the lover and the beloved. “First of all, love is a joint experience between two persons—but the fact that it is a joint experience does not mean that it is a similar experience to the two people involved. There are the lover and the beloved, but these two come from different countries.”
I think that Bo Bartlett finds that imbalance, that complicated narrative of life. The person with eyes closed in meditation or looking directly at the viewer. The gaze that sees something beyond the frame of the painting. There is always the broader perspective, which for me is what makes his work so incredibly moving and beautiful. I know but I don’t know. I’m there as participant but also as witness. This person is in the moment, but this other one is staring me in the eye with a kind of foreboding knowledge of what lies ahead. There are so many dimensions emotionally. Layers upon layers. I long for what is familiar even despite the haunting sense of foreboding.
I have mentioned The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a work that realistically creates and brings to life a Southern town of a particular time. Within this familiar setting, we find characters who represent every walk of life, focusing in particular on those who, for whatever reason—race or religion, physical handicap or heartbreak—are removed from the path of the mainstream. Likewise, Bo Bartlett takes on the great challenging expanse of human emotion within the most routine settings. There is often a background of everyday ordinariness, but look closer. The scene is never simple, and I am always left imagining what next? Likewise, we anticipate the next work from this extraordinary artist.