Looker Turned Maker
Mike Bartlett’s paintings are alluring, richly coloured concoctions, that bring to mind the wild colour experiments of the Fauvists. But unlike this 19th century movement, Bartlett’s subjects are not idyllic French landscapes or exotic looking women. Instead he focuses on the very art of looking with many works featuring art gallery visitors viewing art or turning around to pose for the artist as he captures them standing in front of the very artworks they have been looking at. This redirection of the gaze - the gallery viewer is now looking at us, and we as the viewer of the painting are now looking at the gallery visitor as well as the artwork they have been looking at – creates a complex double layer of looking. Doubling, or being unsure exactly what we are looking at is something that fascinates Bartlett and which he has further examined in his Twins and Doubles series. In Doubles similar scenes are painting twice with small adjustments creating a kind of disrupted Rorschach test.
The zoo is another of Bartlett’s continuing fascinations; the animals enclosed are akin to artworks displayed for us to look at. Animals, we are told, have no history (an elephant is always simply an elephant), but in Bartlett’s series Animal Stories, pictures of animals in early 20th century children’s annuals are the inspiration for hallucinatory paintings where humans and animals interact and blur together. The human-animal encounter is often considered to be something of a calming experience; stroking and caring for household pets helps to heal mental health problems and social rifts. But there is something darker going on in these images of happy children when we consider that the human is always in a position of control and the ‘cute’ animals are in fact imprisoned and acting against their true nature.
In the Artscapes series viewer and the viewed come together in the same pictorial space. A trip to the gallery is transformed into a Technicolor dream in a scenario akin to another childhood reference, the 1970s television show Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings. Once again there is darkness under Bartlett’s brightly coloured surface – a nightmarish subplot whereby art viewers become trapped forever within the frames of the artwork they admire.
Bartlett’s paintings amplify his subjects not only with their extravagant colorization but also in their heavily worked surfaces. Paint appears to have been layered and scraped, with imagery deftly mined from the excavated surface. This takes the work beyond mere figuration and imbues it with an oneiric quality. But Bartlett’s works are not dark gothic dreams – heavy and portentous – rather they embody the Technicolor fears of a contemporary society oversaturated with culture, where we, as the viewer, are never quite sure how we should respond to what we are seeing. This kaleidoscopic crisis of looking is the subject Bartlett returns to again. As artists we are encouraged to look at the world around us and in particular at the artworks being exhibited by both our contemporaries and past art masters. Bartlett’s work processes this overload of material by making it the very heart of his own richly coloured work, creating his own nuanced index of looking.
‘He approaches each subject with respect and tenderness with a very strong sense of humanity. The works being not just cold observations.’ Arturo Cascario 2017
Download Mike Bartlett's CV here