The first two images that greet visitors to PAFA’s new show surveying the career of Jennifer Bartlett depict the Earth and Mars painted onto the artist’s trademark baked enamel plates. But despite the exhibition’s title, “History of the Universe,” most of Bartlett’s work doesn’t deal with such cosmic subjects. Instead, the universe that Bartlett has documented over more than 40 years is a far more intimate one.
“Most of Barlett’s works deal with the human condition, the existential questions of life,” says curator Klaus Ottmann, director of the Center for the Study of Modern Art at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. “They are ‘World Pictures.’ Especially her iconic, almost archetypal depictions of houses, an image that is present throughout her entire oeuvre, which are symbols of humanity and history; the house becomes a symbol for the universe.”
“History of the Universe” contains only about 30 pieces from the last four decades, but many of them are large-scale works, such as “Atlantic Ocean,” a fragmented seascape on a grid of enamel plates wrapping around one corner of the gallery, or the stunning “Amagansett Diptych #1,” a pair of views painted during different seasons that provide new revelations depending on the viewer’s distance from them.
Multiple perspectives are a recurring theme in Bartlett’s work. “Pool” looks at the same swimming pool from three slightly different vantage points, while both “Double House” and “Boats” pair sculptures with paintings to examine different qualities of the titular objects.
The works are diverse in scale, subject matter and approach, encompassing figurative and abstract approaches as well as landscapes, still lifes and text-based imagery. “The common threads are a disposition for experimentation and subversion,” Ottmann says, “a capacity to unsettle the seeming beauty of her works and to undermine the rules of the order she imposes onto them.”
Representing almost all of the major periods of Bartlett’s career, “History of the Universe” showcases the now 72-year-old artist’s empathic interest in modern life, especially through her seemingly contradictory fascinations with order and chaos, as in the grids she obsessively uses and undermines.
“Like all great art,” Ottmann says of the show, “I hope that it will ultimately help people to live a meaningful life and construct an ethical framework as well as introduce them to one of the most visionary, provocative, and thoughtful artists of our time.”
Jennifer Barlett: History of the Universe – Works 1970-2011
Through Oct. 13
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Samuel M.V. Hamilton Building
128 N. Broad St.