Deer Spirit for Frank LaPena (1999), acrylic on panel, 24x24 in.; private collection
Deer Spirit for Frank LaPena (1999), acrylic on panel, 24x24 in.; private collection
©Rick Bartow/Courtesy Autry Museum of the American West

Artist Rick Bartow Depicts Spirit Animals of Our Most Sublime Souls

"Things You Know but Cannot Explain" is a pretty good working definition of art, in a way; it gets at the heart of what art is, how it is made and how it functions in society. Uniquely suited to express life's mysteries in ways at which language fails, collapsing time and space, reality and fantasy, art depicts and embodies paradoxical dimensions of perception and consciousness, the better to more fully explore the nuances of the human condition and the existential flux of the world. Even as it shows us our world and ourselves, art's ability to communicate abstract and contradictory ideas in visible, physical form can be nothing short of magic.

For the late, great artist Rick Bartow, much like the powerful and profound work he created for more than four decades, the essential quality of life was transformation. From his elevation of common found objects and natural materials into expressive, symbolically charged sculptures; to his energetic, visceral portraits of liminal beings who are simultaneously human and animal; to the redemption of his own traumas and private failings in manifestations of transcendence, Bartow was immersed in the never-ending process of his own becoming. Bartow's works, reflecting the dualistic, chimerical nature of living, are never only one thing; and their stories, which are both his and ours, never have only one meaning.

When it comes to Bartow's visual style, comparisons to 20th-century painters like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francis Bacon are abundant. Bartow's work offers figures with disrupted faces and bodies, whose gestural contours, saturated colors and emotionally intense textures are entirely legible yet devoid of realist impulses. There is a certain eccentricity to drawing the figure this way that feels like folk, primitive or outsider art; yet at the same time, the pictures are organized according to sophisticated studies of color and composition. The expanses of rich color fields in what would otherwise be empty space, and the intentionally, psychologically telling distressed faces of the self-portraits especially, are what bring to mind Bacon.

Creation of Crow (2014), acrylic on canvas, 36x48 in.; courtesy Froelick Gallery, Portland, Oregon
Creation of Crow (2014), acrylic on canvas, 36x48 in.; courtesy Froelick Gallery, Portland, Oregon
©Rick Bartow/Courtesy Autry Museum of the American West

In truth, those affinities are more than optical. Basquiat, for example, was deeply engaged with the cultural and bodily violence of colonialism and genocide perpetrated on people of color, which resonated for Bartow not only with the genetic sense-memory of an 1860 massacre of his own tribe's people but also with his harrowing experiences as a reluctant wartime soldier. For his part, Bacon was a notorious drinker whose self-portraits reflected harsh, Jungian deconstructions of his own being and made frequent use of the idea of the mask as both a symbolic and pictorial trope. The mask as a motif is important to Bartow, too, appearing in two-dimensional and especially sculptural forms throughout both his own work and the broader cultural lexicon of his heritage.

Further influenced by the many vernacular traditions he encountered during his extensive travels, besides contemporary art and modern ideas about identity and persona, Bartow's unique hybrid perspective was forged from many sources. Influenced not only by the Western art historical canon in which he was educated and trained, Bartow was centrally aware with every breath of his own overarching identity as an actively engaged member of the Mad River Band of Wiyot Indians. At certain points, this conflicted with his concurrent identity as a U.S. citizen, whose mandatory military experience in the Vietnam War released a host of PTSD-related demons that plagued the artist as a young man. As for many others, art was one path back to himself — or, rather, forward to the new self he would become.

Things You Know but Cannot Explain (1979), graphite on paper, 24x19 in.; private collection
Things You Know but Cannot Explain (1979), graphite on paper, 24x19 in.; private collection
©Rick Bartow/Courtesy Autry Museum of the American West

On view at the Autry Museum of the American West through the end of the year, "Things You Know but Cannot Explain" is Bartow's first major retrospective, despite his being revered among those versed in contemporary First Nation art. And though it covers decades of creative output in large and small paintings, haunting drawings and prints, and witty, complex sculptures, the show takes its name from a single 1979 drawing, the first Bartow did after the war. Because that's where it all started.

The drawing is a gripping portrait of a tormented soul, a visceral cry for help and a passionate rage against inertia that encapsulates the volatility of his being in a way that words could not have done. It is reminiscent of the iconic drawings by Käthe Kollwitz made during WWII in the same way, for similar reasons.

This exhibition originated at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene, Oregon, where it first opened in 2015, when Bartow was still alive. He died in April 2016, but the show notably includes his last works, many of the most impressive of which were made as recently as 2014, following a stroke he suffered in 2013. That created what the curators call "a sense of urgency," which the artist felt as well. There's a story that he was back in the studio within four days of the stroke. And one can clearly see an increased intensity in the latest works, a fearlessness in the face of mortality that renders them all the more visceral and emotionally explosive. Somehow fittingly, the work he made at the end of his life is the most sensational and beautiful of his career.

Curators Danielle M. Knapp and Jill Hartz worked closely with Bartow, and thankfully documented much of that process as well as several conversations with the artist surrounding the opening in Oregon. The show subsequently traveled to museums in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Phoenix; and Pullman, Washington; it will finish its tour here at the Autry Museum. In a sense, the Autry's mission to foster appreciation for the historical and contemporary art of the American West makes it a perfect venue; doubly so in the context of the museum's further educational mission to contextualize this history within present-day cultural currents.

The Autry's exhibition design is stellar; its environmental atmosphere and division into sectional pillars that reflect the narrative structure of the survey are clear and engaging. The work is presented not so much in chronological phases as in overlapping areas of concern that animated Bartow's entire career: Gesture, Self, Dialogue, Tradition, Transformation. A selection of interview videos are the perfect complement, showing the artist's amazing personality, and the deadpan tone in which he delivers insightful spiritual zingers like Alan Alda playing William Burroughs in a stage play. He says things like, "The song of the birds is always about the birds," and "You can make music or poetry, or you can just tell the truth."

"Our creator gives everyone a gift," Bartow says in one video, "and that's what we have."

Self (1984), pastel and graphite on paper; 22½x18 in.; courtesy Froelick Gallery, Portland, Oregon
Self (1984), pastel and graphite on paper; 22½x18 in.; courtesy Froelick Gallery, Portland, Oregon
©Rick Bartow/Courtesy Autry Museum of the American West

In the name of using his gift in the best way he could, Bartow's practice examined not only the significance of the act of making for the individual artist but also the spiritual significance for the artist's entire community. Art, in this mode, is a private ritual enacted in public. The creative process is a meditative, intimate experience; the finished piece has something of value to convey to all who see it. The best art is fully both.

Bartow was deeply engaged with such ideas about how art functions in society, in fact in societies around the world and across history, and his conception of its potential owed way more to the First Nation reverence for vision quests and a prehistoric lineage of gestural mark-making, stretching all the way back to petroglyphs and cave paintings, than it does to any late-capitalist model privileging luxury objects. So while his raw materials and found objects were often humble, it was the agency of the artist as a kind of seer, or interpreter of the esoteric, that infuses art with its talismanic powers.

In the 1991 masterpiece Performance Self-Portrait, Bartow's velvety pastel-and-graphite image shows the torso of a shamanic dancer; his face is not in frame, but his ceremonial gear includes a face mask. From its deep shadows to its deeply scored rainbow plumage, this image radiates power and purpose, fear and exuberance, and is both a grand metaphor and an ingrained memory for the artist.

Thirteen years later, in 2014, less than a year after his stroke, Bartow made CS Indian. With its shades of Van Gogh's most unsettling self-portraits, especially the one with his bandaged ear, and its surrealist qualities of color and a third eye, its almost four square feet of raw canvas, and its smattering of intense primary colors, it is a picture of change frozen midway through. From within its florid prisms and expressionist contours, the eyes and a mouth full of tiny sharp teeth are rendered crisp and clear and clean, as if to say, the mind may be in frenzy but the eyes and the voice still have a job to do.

The large acrylic paintings Frog in Orange Britches and Crow Song Bear, both 2014, also depict figures in motion, enacting disjointed but deliberate movements, showing double figures and animal-inflected visages. These exuberant paintings are each a quirky, operatic tour de force, and this evolution of Bartow's style feels less like a change and more like a culmination of an idea he's been working with for decades. These works have everything we have come to expect from a Bartow — color, line, symbolism and risk, as well as fear, courage and something new: joy. They make use of movement, negative space and a performative sense of ritual that unfolds like other actionist painters, but from a whole different vector, in which every action and gesture carries meaning and impacts the world in ways both academic and inexplicable. As Bartow observed, "The world is a better place when you have little mysteries to watch. Slow down," he said, "open your eyes, learn by looking."

These same pluralistic aesthetic ambitions also operate in Bartow's sculptures, and are in some ways even more assertive when played out in multiple dimensions and less ethereal mediums. Pressing his thumbs deep into wet clay, placing hundreds of small nails and other repurposed objects in wood, itself chosen for the anatomical possibilities it suggests in its own form, carving marks into its surface like making a drawing on paper — all of this activity represents the artist's hand and, by extension, his presence in this world, his aliveness in this life.

From Nothing Coyote Creates Himself (2004), wood and metal, 41x84x16 in.; courtesy Froelick Gallery, Portland, Oregon
From Nothing Coyote Creates Himself (2004), wood and metal, 41x84x16 in.; courtesy Froelick Gallery, Portland, Oregon
©Rick Bartow/Courtesy Autry Museum of the American West

As a native of the Pacific Northwest, and the Wiyot community specifically, Bartow knows that totemic wood sculptures were meant to be displayed outside, like the public art they are. But Bartow's more intimately scaled wood sculptures frequently use the wood more like found objects than clean slates, as he allows the pieces to suggest their own body forms — legs, faces, tails, paws, fur, spines, teeth, textured hides. This is an animistic impulse as well as an assemblage technique, as the artist proceeds not to impose his ideas onto the wood but rather to listen when it speaks to him about what spirit already dwells within it. In works like Man Acting Like Dog (2009) and Bear Mask (2008), elements of indigenous ingenuity and modernist stylization combine to offer convincing, affecting avatars.

We've seen men merge with spirits of bear, salmon, crow, coyote, eagle and themselves; we've seen common materials elevated to embody metamorphosis. If there's one single recurring motif in Bartow's work that appears throughout his career and across all his chosen mediums and aspects of style, it is the mask. In its very definition, it expresses the idea of something that is hidden yet present, and speaks to the kind of paradox Bartow found most appealing — how a thing or a man can be both entirely itself or himself, while also being entirely something else altogether. A mask is perfect when considering how a disguise can reveal a deeper reality.

Masks change their wearers in their core being, at an energetic level, not only in their appearance — any Jim Carrey fan call tell you that. Masks are also Jungian allegories, and like Jung, Bartow's interests stretched from Western mythology to modern psychology, local folk archetypes and art brut. In traditional tribal and cosmopolitan carnival cultures, masks are frequently combinations of animal and human parts, liminal hybrid species. Bartow traveled extensively in his lifetime, and collected artifacts from instances of this ancient practice from every continent. These are ideas fraught with materialism, alchemy and animistic symbolism, capable of containing multitudes; but through it all, Bartow would remind us, "Truth is always truth."

"Things You Know but Cannot Explain," Autry Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park; through Jan. 6; theautry.org. Tue.-Fri., 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

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