Article: John Bartlett

 John Bartlett has moved into very dangerous territory in his latest body of work. He has moved into the realm of the sacred – itself potentially taboo – abstracted to such a degree that the average viewer will no doubt be dumbfounded. But despite this abstraction, a deeply haunting resonance seems palpable, bordering on the visceral and, for all their minimalist elegance, the violent.

 
Bartlett has entered the realms of religiosity, the spiritual and the philosophical in the past. His influences arevast, ranging from the scientific and alchemist to Zen Buddhism and Sufi. But here, in his latest gestalt, he has moved closer to home. And with that comes baggage; a surplus of history and tragedy, where the grandiose meets a marketing tourism travesty. A landscape of ponderous and ancient meanings that have entertained Westerners for only a brief moment in the spectrum of time. 
 
There are many sacred places in Australia. They are unlike most equivalents in other parts of the world. Most “sacred” places, from Stonehenge to Notre Dame are man-made. The equivalents in Australia, the best known of which are Kata Tjuta and Uluru, are natural formations and as such reflect the bedrock of Aboriginal belief systems. But as is so often the case with places deemed sacred, many of these sites have also been drenched with the blood of innocents.
 
This is the realm of black fella mourning and mythology. For a white fella – John Bartlett – to delve into it as subject matter is perilous indeed.
 
Specific depictions of sacred sites and those of the locations of massacre are rare indeed in contemporary Australian art and they are almost entirely the province of Aboriginal artists. Whether they would approve of a white man tackling their stories is open to question. But having got to know Bartlett reasonably well, I know his motivations are anything but opportunistic. Similarly having met arguably the leading practitioner of similar subject matter, I strongly suspect that old man, were he still around, would approve.
 
I met Paddy Bedford on a number of occasions, firstly in 2002 in Melbourne during the groundbreaking show, Blood on the Spinifex at the Ian Potter Museum of Art alongside his fellow Turkey Creek artists, Goody Barrett, Peggy Patrick, Rusty Peters, Phyllis Thomas and Freddie Timms. I last saw him in Warmun in 2007, shortly before his death
 
Nyunkuny, commonly known by his gardiya name Paddy Bedford, was a Gija lawman of Jawalyi skin who was born at Bedford Downs Station in the East Kimberley circa 1922. Several years before his birth, a group of his Gija relations had been murdered by strychnine poisoning in retaliation for the killing of a milking cow near an emu dreaming place to the west. As a senior law man, he had been involved in painting as part of ceremony all his life and arguably his most powerful works were those inspired by the Bedford Downs massacre.
Bartlett’s approach to the landscape, like Bedford’s, is essentially minimalist. Stylistically both suggest the strong and bold object/spatiality seen in the work of American artist Philip Guston and New Zealander Colin McCahon. Oddly, given the reality of the Australian landscape, few white artists, with the obvious exception of Fred Williams, have opted for such minimalism.
 
Bartlett has always been a restless artist. He has evolved over time and through various stylistic incarnations and technical conundrums. Indeed, in 1990 he was curated into the exhibition Art With Text alongside such ‘loud’ artists as Linda Marinon, Gareth Sansom and Jenny Watson in a show that revealed the postmodern penchant for utilising text in painting, a thought that is nigh impossible when looking at his current works. Bartlett has in the past utilised Rank Xerox technology and discarded circuit-boards and been inspired by video games, Hip Hop and Break Dancing. But such popular-culture references seem to be an eon ago. From 1991 through to 2002 his work featured impressions of sky reflections on water, then impressions of the desert landscape of Central Australia, incorporating found objects such as leaves, pods, twigs, earth and sand from around Alice Springs, clearly planting the seed for the current paintings.
 
Bartlett’s last major body of work involved explorations into such esoteria as I Ching Hexagrams, Zen Buddhism and the notion of Wabi and Sabi. With these most recent works he has moved back to home. His initial inspiration was, however, not surprisingly, reductive and not far removed from Paddy Bedford’s (much more personal) motivations. Bartlett had read Theo Strehlow’s book, Journey to Horseshoe Bend, which includes a gruesome recounting of the massacre at Tempe Downs station led by Constable Willshire, who told of another such slaughter, saying, “They scattered in all directions… there’s no use mincing matters – the Martini Henry carbines at that critical moment were speaking English in the silent majesty of those great eternal rocks”.
 
I recently had an e-mail correspondence with a writer friend in New York, a man who prides himself on his arch cynicism when it comes to all things spiritual or esoteric. He had been forced to sit through a marathon of Australian movies, including Wake in Fright, The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and Picnic At Hanging Rock. With almost a tone of awe he wrote asking “Is the Australian bush really that spooky?” A born and bred New Yorker, he had even found early scenes of Crocodile Dundee unnerving.
 
It is a hard question to answer. To be sure the sites of such massacres as Bedford and Tempe Downs are imbued with a melancholia that is perhaps informed by history. But there are other sites where the white man knows no history and yet cannot help but be touched by a sense of otherworldiness.
 
Bartlett’s rocks, with their blood hued-weight and almost pulsing presence, are a reminder that we live in a world of multiple depths and we live on a land rife with spirituality. These are not literal renderings, not landscape painting per se. That would be far too obvious; the are more signposts on a road to greater understanding of both the land and our relationship to the people who first inhabited it. They are monolithic sentinels, guardians to a strange but powerful world.
 
“This series is of great rocks. Be they Uluru, the rocks that were at a Clifton Hill roundabout, Kata Tjuta, the boulders between Alice Springs and Hermannsberg…” he says. “It is irrefutable that they are inhabited by a presence, the same presence of which one is aware when alone in the bush or desert or mountain top, the presence that confirms the human’s place in the scheme of things. Solid, unwrought, immoveable, invested with sacredness, radiating the universal spirit that permeates all living beings; even after desecration, still they enshrine sacred places of the land.” 
 
“I didn’t consciously decide on this subject matter, simply read a book. The seed was sown, then I just left my window open. I don’t try to make things happen, I allow them to happen; as Krishnamurti said: ‘If you want the wind to blow in the window, you can’t make it blow in the window, but you can open the window to allow it to happen.’ 

By Ashley Crawford

Ashley Crawford

Ashley Crawford is a freelance cultural critic based in Melbourne.