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Green Light in the City

Exhibition Review: Reconnecting With Matter at Beam Editions

20 November 21 words: George Dunbar

Scratched, worn, daubed, and tarred; Eleanor Bartlett’s energetic paintings have been unleashed in a small yet impactful exhibition at Beam Gallery. Reconnecting with Matter collects Bartlett’s most recent work into a survey of her self-taught painting style, expanding our understanding of what constitutes matter, ultimately disturbing our view of reality and the materials around us...

Eleanor Bartlett

Scratched and worn but equally intense and dramatic, Eleanor Bartlett’s paintings pull on the viewer, drawing them in. Full of intrigue and mystery with their thick black daubed tar and scratched lines, they have the appearance of large black yawning holes, gaping, ready to consume their surroundings. The paintings are thick and heavy, scratched into with huge amounts of tar, grit and earth, each painting looming over Beam’s small exhibition space in Primary like a dark landscape.

Eleanor Bartlett began producing art in her late fifties after leaving a career in physiotherapy, and is very much self taught. The title of her latest exhibition, Reconnecting with Matter, indicates a re-focusing on the materiality of art. The idea of reconnecting with matter is an insistence on seeing the real world physically, rather than seeing it represented on a screen. The rawness of her work is especially poignant in a time of COVID-19 restrictions, when we are faced with an erosion of the material world by the digital. 

Bartlett’s paintings and drawings are presented to the viewer with a dramatic mystery, making this a body of work that is difficult to define. Filled with plenty of themes and ideas, juxtaposing brooding feelings of darkness with a sense of playfulness and exploration. These works are, at the same time, abstract and also concrete, portraying a clear focus on time, place, and materiality. 

Reconnecting with Matter brings Bartlett’s very distinctive body of work to the fore. She uses tar, wax and metal paint as her mediums, and there is an aggression to the way she applies them. She gouges marks and hurls paint across the surface of the canvas, sometimes making holes through the canvas. Untitled (2019), made from tar and metal paint on canvas, really has this quality to it; you can feel the emotion and expression through the shape of the mark making. 

Bartlett’s work draws on the history of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1940s and 1950s, with its gestural brush strokes, mark-making and, in particular, the spontaneity of Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Like the skid marks of a car, you can almost hear the screeching of the brakes emanating from Bartlett’s vivid brushstrokes. The aggression of Bartlett’s expression allows you to really feel the emotions that went into her practice, and one can immediately sense the physical act of making within the work. It has energy.

“The paintings are thick and heavy, scratched into with huge amounts of tar, grit and earth, each painting looming over Beam’s small exhibition space in Primary like a dark landscape.”

Yet, Bartlett goes beyond mere Abstract Expressionism. Her work shows an interplay between deliberate mark making and drawing, as well as total abstraction. It is a combination of the deliberate act combined with the presentation of the effects of the materials. In this way, her art can also be considered to be process-art, concerned mainly with the process of its creation. Again, Bartlett draws the viewer back to the artwork as a physical object, showing the physicality of the materials and the physicality of the act of their creation. The paintings are both a negotiation between the artist’s will and the will of the material. The torturing of the materials gives the work a certain history and lends it an aged quality. In this way, the art very much touches on a specific type of Process-Art; a Japanese philosophy known as ‘Wabi Sabi’, a traditional Japanese aesthetics centred on the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

There are videos and interviews in the gallery space of Bartlett making her work. She can be seen scratching and throwing paint at the canvases in her signature explosive method. This approach is to, in a sense, torture the materials; to bring out their essence and their own expression. This rough, no nonsense approach gives the work a strong sense of authenticity to it because you really get a sense for the physicality of the materials.

Eleanor Bartlett

Bartlett’s work contains within it a very authentic and honest approach to the materials she uses. This is especially true of her series Untitled, works from which are exhibited in the gallery. They are large square paintings with huge daubed marks and lines of tar and metal paint, all made in the past couple of years. These works only contain colour that comes as a direct result of the true qualities of the materials used, rather than being applied arbitrarily to make the paintings look more aesthetically pleasing. In fact, the energy of the mark making is the focus; colour would only detract from this. Her mark making also recalls Japanese calligraphy art, in the way it creates pictographic shapes through gestural form. But she uses tar instead of ink and a paintbrush instead of a pen. At times, the paintbrush becomes more like a blackened stick due to becoming totally clogged by tar.  The energy that connects the hand to the brush gives vitality to the form that the tar sticks to the canvas. 

Eleanor Bartlett’s work reminds us of the beauty of reality, with all its drama contained within, and an experience that cannot be appreciated in the virtual world, only when confronted physically. 

Eleanor Bartlett: Reconnecting with Matter is on view at Beam Gallery until December 4.

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