In 2013, artist Rick Bartow suffered the second of two strokes that left him with a blind spot in one eye, memory loss, and speech difficulties. But his health did not dampen his artistic spirit and he returned to his practice with enthusiasm, creating works on a scale rarely seen in his earlier paintings. In the exhibition Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain, a retrospective on view at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, a painting references this time in his life, when he struggled to maintain his connection to all that he knew and remembered. The composition, called Deer Magic, is a return to the theme of human-animal transformation that he explored throughout his career. The painting depicts a human body with the head and hooves of a deer. Surrounding the figure in numerous iterations and sizes are letters and numbers written as ABC 123, a reference to a phrase he repeated over and over after his stroke, along with his birth date and other facts he could remember, to help him rescue his own mind, which he feared would slip further into oblivion. “He felt vulnerable his whole life,” Bartow’s longtime dealer Charles Froelick told Pasatiempo. “It was clear to him what frailties there were to humanity and his own life. He felt very lucky and very fortunate to be alive. He kept saying, ‘Here I am again. I survived.’”
Bartow, who died of congestive heart failure on April 2 at age sixty-nine, was a prolific artist whose work broached universal themes while often referencing personal narratives. “He was omnivorous, really, in looking for common experiences, but his work was definitely rooted in his personal life,” said Froelick, whose Portland, Oregon gallery contributed several pieces to the traveling exhibition. “Rick was made to make art,” he said. “He didn’t love paperwork, answering phones, doing email. He didn’t want to be the organizer. He didn’t like running errands. He just wanted to make art. It was his work ethic from the get-go that you don’t wait for the muse. You go into your studio and you paint and you paint and you paint and you draw and you carve.”
Bartow’s compositions were so steeped in personal history that self-portraiture, even when it wasn’t ostensive, was habitually present. “He often uses the bear in his transformation pieces,” said Manuela Well-Off-Man, the IAIA museum’s chief curator. “You think you see an animal face, but if you look closer, you can see Rick Bartow’s eyes or his eyeglasses. He used self-portraiture a lot in his work, from the early ’80s to the present day. He was really known for his expressive pastels on paper, but he was also an excellent draftsman. Before he passed away, hevisited our museum here and he generously donated 13 really nice works. We have an entire wall dedicated to this donation. He struggled with several tragedies in his life, and art was a tool for healing. He sometimes said, ‘Art is an affordable therapy.’ ”
The retrospective was organized by the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon and curated by the JSMA’s executive director, Jill Hartz, and JSMA McCosh associate curator Danielle Knapp. They identified five major components of Bartow’s life and work, along which the show is arranged: gesture, self, dialogue, transformation, and new work. “We arranged the show the way we did, in themes rather than being strictly chronological, because he would talk about what was happening at the time he created a work, and so much of it remained consistent throughout his practice decades later,” Knapp told Pasatiempo. “Where you have something from the 1980s next to a more recent work, it felt as though time was eliminated between the two because it was really all about his experience where art and life were intertwined.” The exhibit opened at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum in 2015 before traveling to the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa. “The opening was magical,” said Hartz. “When it came time for Rick to address a crowd of 800 people, he went into the crowd with his arms open in a kind of a prayer and he chanted. It was an auspicious start to the event.” In addition to the exhibit at IAIA MoCNA, Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art, in collaboration with the Froelick Gallery, is mounting a solo exhibit of 19 works on paper and canvas, Rick Bartow: Big Crow. The exhibit focuses on imagery related to the themes of the retrospective, and opens with a 5 p.m. reception on Friday, Aug. 19.
Bartow’s paintings, drawings, prints, and woodcarvings, which compose the bulk of the MoCNA exhibition, are figurative and narrative, but rendered with the spontaneous, dynamic energy of an abstract expressionist. His works are powerful, emotive, and sometimes frightening glimpses into the human condition that incorporate drawn lines with bold, gestural applications of paint. Deer Magic is one of several late-career paintings that hang side by side along one wall of the exhibit at MoCNA. Another is Bird Bird Bird Crow Crow, in which a figure lies prostate, a gesture that for Bartow represented death or sleep, beneath the figure of a crow. The horizontal figure seems caught in a liminal state, perhaps dreaming or transforming into the crow, a messenger between worlds. Dotted lines, a motif that reappears in Bartow’s work, emanate from the crow’s beak as though it is speaking in some unfamiliar tongue. It is a haunting and suggestive composition, especially coming so close on the heels of his strokes. “He was frail. He couldn’t stand all the time, but he had to stand to make these works,” Hartz said. “He was still pushing himself. I don’t think he would have recovered if he couldn’t make art. It kept him sane, or as sane as he wanted to be.”
“It aided in his recovery,” added Knapp. “I saw these larger works he created during that period as these acts of defiance against the limitations of the body, but also as a celebration of being able to recover that important part of himself. Charles has an anecdote he shared about Rick in the hospital, grabbing a pencil and starting to draw, and calling Charles and saying, ‘I can still draw a bird. Everything’s going to be OK.’ ”
Bartow, a musician as well as an artist, was of Wiyot heritage on his father’s side. He was raised in Oregon in a community of Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, and adapted customs and traditions of not only the Wiyot and Siletz, but also of other Native American tribes into his paintings — as well as global myths and literary and musical references. In 1969, he was drafted, spending his military service working as a teletypist and a musician, playing for injured troops in a military hospital in Vietnam. His service earned him a Bronze Star, but left him suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress. “He was in the hospitals when these soldiers were coming back from the front lines with complete dismemberment from the waist down: no legs, no arms, in their dying moments,” Froelick said. “When people hit rock bottom, either they fall apart or they pull themselves together. Rick remembered what it was like to be at rock bottom, and he knew what a powerful place of vulnerability that is. It’s a potent experience to feel your complete mortality, but also see opportunity to pursue the rest of your life.”
After the war, Bartow struggled with alcoholism and a failed marriage. The earliest piece in the exhibition, from which the show’s title is taken, is a graphite drawing of human figure, mouth agape in a silent scream. It dates to 1979, the year Bartow became sober. “Having art as a way to exorcise his own demons was really important to him, and it gave him a lifeline not just to physical recovery, but emotional recovery during difficult times,” Knapp said.
For Bartow, making art was about process. It was also an intensely physical act that was as much about transformation as was his subject matter. But he avoided technical processes that were exacting — such as lithography, bronze casting, and glass work — in favor of the more immediate and visceral acts of mark-making. “He tried his hand working with glass, but there are so many technical aspects,” said Froelick. “We made one bronze casting together and that was from a wood sculpture. He made the large wood piece and had a mold made to turn it into a bronze, but the process was so disorienting to him that he didn’t want to do another bronze after that.”
His studio was divided into separate buildings, each one dedicated to a particular medium. He maintained a painting studio, a woodcarving studio, and a print shop. “He could sit in the middle of his carving studio and he could reach the wall on three sides to find the right tool and they were all hanging over his head,” Froelick said. “He’d spend a couple of days in the carving studio, then he’d work in the print shop, then the painting studio.”
Bartow also loved to work with words, was fond of Shakespeare, and was an avid reader. “It’s typical of his work that you find text incorporated in his compositions, and symbolism borrowed not only from Native American cultures but also from indigenous cultures worldwide,” said Well-Off-Man.
“He had to make art, and it was a blessing and a curse,” said Froelick. “He said it was what he knew how to do. It was what he was always good at: making images and, at the same time, being tuned into something else going on in the universe.” ◀