By Tessa Raebeck
Using the images of house and home to convey not comfort but impermanence, subversion and abstraction, veteran artist Jennifer Bartlett has continually revisited the theme—and the contradictions therein—over her 40-plus year career.
In “Jennifer Bartlett: History of the Universe,” the Parrish Art Museum presents Ms. Bartlett’s work, from 1970 through 2011, in three galleries of massive enamel steel plates and colorful paintings, on view now through July 13.
“It explores the symbolism and themes that she works with over time, centering on the home and house and the relationships she has with her friends, motifs she explores routinely throughout her work,” Curatorial Assistant Michael Pintauro said of the exhibition.
Originally from Long Beach, California, Ms. Bartlett emerged in the mid-1970s and quickly earned commercial success and critical acclaim for her work, which combines figurative and abstract art. The artist often melds together deep blues and greens in her paintings, delineated by harsh lines, panels and grids.
Ms. Bartlett first used the house image in “House Piece” in 1970, and the hearth has been a recurring theme in her work ever since.
“A house is basically a square and a triangle within a rectangle,” Ms. Bartlett observed in a conversation with Leisa Austin from the publication, “Jennifer Bartlett: Earth.” “It shows a human presence but it is totally abstract.”
In “237 Lafayette Street,” the title representative of Ms. Bartlett’s address in 1978 when the painting was completed, the traditional home image is distorted across three panels, representing the impermanence of a house. The geometric blocks remain the same, but the colors and designs surrounding it transform from muted to chaotic.
Ms. Bartlett’s friend Joan Didion, a writer and fellow Californian, said this notion of a chaotic “sense of place” stems from coming of age in the Golden State, where “children grow up aware that any extraordinary morning their house could slip its foundations in an earthquake, implode in a brushfire, [or] slide from existence on a suddenly unstable slope,” the author write in an introduction to “Jennifer Bartlett: Earth.”
Ms. Bartlett has been spending time at a cottage in Amagansett since the early 1990s, where, like many artists before her, she has enjoyed the natural inspiration of the many landscapes on the East End.
A massive piece on view at the Parrish, “Atlantic Ocean” is made of enamel laid over a silkscreen grid on 224 baked enamel steel plates. Completed in 1984, the work is obviously locally inspired, with off-white frothy waves melding into deep blue waters, a dune-lined island in the background.
Also a multi-plate work, “Amagansett Diptych #1,” oil on two canvases made from 2007 to 2008, was just gifted to the Parrish’s permanent collection in April. Promised by Michael Forman and Jennifer Rice, it will add another Bartlett work to the permanent collection.
In both “Atlantic Ocean” and “Amagansett Diptych #1,” Ms. Bartlett used “graining brushes” resulting in an effect that Curator Klaus Ottman described as a “lush sensuality that still manages to meet her desire for grids and order.”
Made between 1991 and 1992, the series “Air: 24 Hours” has 24 paintings at 84 by 84 inches each, each representing an hour of Ms. Bartlett’s day. In “Eleven P.M.” on view at the Parrish, a cluster of handwritten notes and a pile of loose change converge sloppily on top of a desk in a scene evoking the stress of late night planning. Underneath the colors and haphazard scene is Ms. Bartlett’s familiar grid motif, constructing a sense of order after all.
Created in her Amagansett home in 2005 and 2006, “No One is Home” and “Something is Wrong,” paintings overwritten by the words in their titles, further demonstrate Ms. Bartlett’s distrust of the home as a place of undisturbed sanctity and refuge.