It is challenging to choose terms to describe the works in Jennifer Bartlett’s recent show at Locks, titled “Hospital.” We are told in press material that the show’s 10 oil paintings, all 54 inches square and made in 2012, are based on snapshots Bartlett took during an extended stay at a hospital overlooking the East River in Manhattan. These intimate details create delicate terrain, where terms like “illness” and “anxiety” are appropriate but could easily be applied too heavily. Likewise, it would be unduly sentimental to view the paintings as straightforward illustrations of autobiographical incident. Yet the series undoubtedly conveys restricted movement in confined spaces, the surprising proximity of fear and banality, and the struggle to comprehend time. These paintings represent and abstract Bartlett’s hospital stay through the use of three layers of visual information, all the while alluding to their own expressive limits.
One layer consists of representational scenes derived from the snapshots: empty hospital corridors or cityscapes at different hours of the day. The views, largely absent any human presence, seem both momentary and prolonged. In this representational register, time is elastic and indeterminable. Space, too, warps as wavering orthogonal lines and tilting buildings destabilize the viewer’s perspective. In an extreme example—a painting of a night scene—the city and its buildings are nearly hidden in a flattened and inscrutable field of black paint.
Additionally, the canvases all contain the word “hospital” somewhere, painted in tidy capital letters in ghostly white. More than naming the domain in which these paintings were conceived, the recurring word is a reminder of the capacities and failures of language as expressive form. Here, “hospital” indeed totalizes an event, and yet is incapable of elaborating on what transpired during Bartlett’s stay. After one sees all the paintings, the word loses its sharpness, becoming naturalized, peripheral. In a limpid blue view of the sky and buildings between two dark window frames, the white letters of “hospital” overlap a cloud, and are thus especially easy to overlook.
The third register is a wobbling line, a bit over an inch thick in a single opaque color, that moves across each painting from edge to edge. The lines appear to be relatives of the curled long marks found in Bartlett’s painting installations like Rhapsody (1976) and Recitative (2009-10). In the “Hospital” paintings, the lines are simultaneously the most abstract and the most corporeal feature. Though they carry no particular signification, one can sense the duration of their execution, an arm-span in length, and perhaps, in their wavering, the rhythm of breathing. The lines contain the immediacy and presence that the modes of representation and language struggle to index.
This is not to say that Bartlett’s painting project gives manifest privilege to any single expressive mode. Painted in retrospect, the “Hospital” works struggle to parse and convey the past in the ongoing present. With complex visual syntax, the paintings suggest the very simple impulse to make sense of lived experience through any and all means possible.
Recitative, the title piece of Jennifer Bartlett’s recent exhibition at Pace, is a magnum opus, the latest in an ongoing body of work using painted steel plates. When the most celebrated of these, the nearly 153-foot-long Rhapsody, was first shown in 1976, it was as though Bartlett had taken Carl Andre’s grids of metal squares, hand-painted them and put them up on the wall.
Wrapped around three walls of Pace Gallery’s enormous 22nd Street space, the 372 square plates that make up Recitative (2009-10) extended a total of 158 feet. Arranged in columns of varying height, the plates (24, 18 or 12 inches square) formed a frieze that rose up to meet the viewer’s body. To survey the piece in its entirety required an ambulation similar to walking the perimeter of a cloister.
On a background of baked white enamel gridded in pale silver, the plates of Recitative are painted with brightly colored enamel, many in grids of dots that suggest a borrowing of strategies from Minimalist and Post-Minimalist art: impersonality, repetition and rules. Differences in density make the marks worth examining carefully: some dots drip and others refuse to drip. Certain subgroupings of plates paraphrase abstract motifs readily associated with other artists: there are snaking networks of lines that look like Brice Marden’s; drizzles and drips that are reminiscent of Pollock’s; and a crosshatch pattern that must be Jasper Johns’s. Arranged in a rhythmic, linear progression propelled by the varying heights of the plate columns, the sequence seems intended to be read from left to right around the room. The title Recitative (a spoken-singing style often used in opera) suggests, as did that of the earlier Rhapsody, that Bartlett sees the overall work as analogous to a piece of music. But the arrangement of plates perhaps too literally resembles a musical score.
With its ostensibly interchangeable parts, Recitative provokes a deeper meditation on the digital age than any number of so-called digital artworks. The work originates in discrete parts, from the pixel-like dots to the plates themselves, which, like the tesserae of a mosaic, form an array much larger than its constituent elements. There is a delicious tension between analog and digital, as the manifestly hand-painted marks contrast with the standardized units.
Logistically speaking, a work like this can be created in a very small space, each steel plate being painted separately, in serial fashion. The finished work, in order to be shown, requires a huge space like Pace’s. Yet for all its expanse the painting is easily disassembled, transported and reassembled—a desirable quality in a world of traveling exhibitions.
Six smaller multiplate works (most 2010) in the back room made an impact without the need to be as immense as Recitative. Trio (2008), a fascinating 45-plate work whose dots compose parabolic lines that may have been inspired by a wood-grain pattern, also brought to mind familiar dotted color-blindness tests, thanks to a palette heavy on red/green and blue/yellow pairs.
Photo: Partial view of Jennifer Bartlett’s Recitative, 2009–10, 372 painted enamel plates, 158 feet long overall; at Pace.