Epic Grids

Jennifer Bartlett has formed an unholy alliance with the grid, some sort of Faustian pact to renounce all other forms of composition in exchange for financial success in the art world. Judging from the grid-based works and the six-figure price tags at Devin Borden Hiram Butler Gallery, she and the grid have each kept up their end of the bargain. As her career is safely past the 24-year mark, it looks like Bartlett was a far better negotiator than Dr. Faustus.

The Cartesian grid of straight horizontal and vertical lines long has been a popular strategy for organizing space, and for many artists the grid itself is the stuff of art. Although schooled in '60s minimalism, Bartlett uses the grid as a reassuring and coherent structure upon which a variety of ideas and images can be applied, giving herself a point of departure. She can adhere to the confines of a unit or groups of units or obscure the units altogether, allowing them to provide an underlying compositional skeleton. The grid provides a constant as her work fluctuates from figuration to abstraction and all points in between.

Bartlett's work has been most successful when it takes the form of epic conceptual projects. In the 24 paintings of 24 hours, the artist created a grid of works that referred to events, objects and emotions as they altered hour by hour from morning to night to morning chronicling a day. Her most discussed and most lauded work was Rhapsody, a Herculean effort that made its debut in 1976 and is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston as part of "Three Works from the Edward R. Broida Collection." The work consists of a grid of 987 12-inch square steel tiles in 142 vertical rows, with each square preprinted with its own internal grid.

The intent, according to Bartlett, was to "have everything in it." "Everything" consists of reoccurring images -- house, mountain, trees and ocean -- as well as geometric shapes and lines painted in various combinations and a plethora of styles. She restricted herself to a palette of the same 25 colors, and the result is a kind of quasi-encyclopedia of the myriad ways in which art evolves from itself, from the world around and from the mind of the artist. The artistic allusions stretch back to Cezanne as well as hint at the coming of neo-Geo and neo-Expressionism. Twenty-five years later it still strikes you as a wonderfully ambitious project.

There is a freshness to the work that comes from the freedom Bartlett feels to occasionally wander from systematic exploration to a meandering personal inquiry. It's definitely worth seeing, especially for those of you who caught an abbreviated glimpse of it in an art history class. At its debut, John Russell of The New York Times called the painting "the most ambitious single work of new art that has come my way since I started to live in New York."

The works on view in "Jennifer Bartlett, New Paintings" not surprisingly lack the epic scale and grand plan of Rhapsody. The paintings are abstract and grid-based -- keeping that pact intact. Bartlett's house theme makes an appearance in two works. Her version of "house" has always relied on the simplistic childlike depiction in which a triangle of roof rests on a square; such a house is the most basic symbol of the feelings and ideas a house embodies. In Forest and Houses (1999), a dense network of dark green marks offers indistinct glimpses of the white houses they obscure. It sounds promising, but the painting rests on the surface too much; it feels a little flat as it implies depth but doesn't deliver it. We get what she's doing, but the all-over and even nature of the way she makes her marks feels a little facile when the paintings have to stand alone.

Across the room, Cherry Tree (1999-2000) presents a treelike arrangement of painted 12-inch by 12-inch steel plates with the addition of two cast concrete houses sticking out of the wall. The plates have a glib surface of dots that create a loosely pointillistic tree, while the 3-D houses are a painter's lame approach to sculpture. When heavily 2-D-oriented painters feel a three-dimensional urge, they often enter into it via painting rather than walking directly into it with an active awareness of all that sculpture can be. The sculptural elements can feel stuck on, or irrelevant, and can wind up looking like someone with an extra limb. Bartlett has intermittently flirted with these 3-D accompaniments to her paintings. Her 1987 painting Boats had an image of two boats, and directly in front of it she placed two white sculptural duplicates of the same boats. See, boats and boats! Get it? Kinda pointless.

The house-free works in the exhibition are more successful. Bartlett gives us three canvases with grids of painterly dots, circles, marks and concentric rings, freely but purposefully painted patterns rendered in flat, pure color. Grey of Grey (1999-2000) presents a small grid of built-up patterns in shades of, well, gray. The concentric circles are vaguely targetlike in a possible Jasper Johns allusion. Gesso (1998-1999) is a larger-scale full-color version of the idea with an unabashedly decorative grid of bright squares filled with multicolored rings and dots. It looks, dare we say, quiltlike; while quilts have a history of incredible abstract compositions, the comparison is a catch-22 because it also can bring on the dismissive prejudice frequently accorded female domestic handicraft. Fluctuating between wanting to hang it on your wall and wanting to put it on your bed isn't necessarily a problem.

The real winner out of the bunch, and the work that shows Bartlett to advantage, is Scheveningen Black (1999-2000). At seven feet high and 14 feet long, it's dynamic on a large scale with lush colors popping out against a black background. You are aware of the underlying compositional grid of rectangles, but the big dotlike plops of color group them erratically and (gasp!) stray over the edges. She reveals a masterful use of color and composition, causing your eye to dart around the canvas as the vibrant shapes seem to bubble up onto the surface. In the end, Bartlett controls the grid -- the grid does not control her.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer