By Peter Plagens
What’s a realist painter to do? The skill of rendering on a flat canvas convincing portrayals of three-dimensional space containing objects and human figures is fairly common, especially in an age when photographic and digital aids are not only readily available, but—at least since the advent of Photorealist painting in the 1960s—immune from accusations of “cheating.” The problem for the hard-core figurative painter is how to stand out from the herd—how to give the viewer something more than the feeling of, “Wow, that looks so real.”
Bo Bartlett (b. 1955) has succeeded—with a plethora of museum exhibitions and awards on his résumé, and even a Bo Bartlett Center at the state university in his hometown of Columbus, Ga.—by painting enormous allegorical pictures that allude to, or even just plain illustrate, American life and culture. “Oligarchy” (2015-16), for instance, shows a man who looks like a small-town bank president, wearing a crown and being hoisted up in a chair (if it’s a throne, it’s a rather modest one) by four young people in a clearly agitated crowd that could be either celebrating the king or getting ready to execute him. The painting’s message, if any, is unclear. It’s Mr. Bartlett’s stated preference to leave things ambiguous, although long, self-indulgent wall texts tell you what news he was hearing and thoughts he was thinking (mostly decorously liberal) before and while he was painting the pictures.
The paintings are large, the compositions complex, the subjects announced as important, and the technique impressive. Mr. Bartlett’s art isn’t as airless as, say, William Bailey’s or as flashy as Eric Fischl’s. The modesty of paint application is, in fact, the only modest quality on view. Whether you’re stirred by these giant, gold-framed op-eds depends on your appetite for stentorian pictorial truisms. Mine is small.