Though human memory is notoriously unreliable, within human experience it is also ubiquitous. Everyone has memories and everyone is attached to or driven by those memories in particular ways, holding them dear as something uniquely personal to ourselves. How can we resolve the condition of memory’s ineffability or subjectivity with the fact of its central situation in the formation of knowledge? Put another way, if our childhood experiences are contained within the “vessels” of memory, however do we reach adulthood?
Calgary-based painter Danielle Bartlette addresses herself to such issues of memory in a new body of work divided into two series. With one series in acrylics and another in oils, Bartlette explores her early childhood memories of Brandon, a small city of 46,000 on the Manitoba prairie, two hours west of Winnipeg.
Bartlette’s acrylic series, rendered in acrylic paint and collage media, is comprised of 31 small-format pieces, each a dense mashup of elements investigating the visual thought world of a Canadian prairie kid in the 1970s: chocolate bar wrappers (“Cross Country Skiing”), rock band posters (“Get to Bed”), hotel pools (“Red Oak Inn”), Oreo cookies (“Frozen Oreo”), Muppets (“Oscar”) and even modern art on the living-room wall (“Stereo”). Bartlette’s use of collage—as in the cut-out trees and towers in “Residential School” and the food items and text in “Smorgasbord”—together with her omnipresent fingerprint “signatures”—draw upon the childhood discovery of art as experienced in preschool or kindergarten: cutting and glueing, fingerpainting, and so on.
Certain elements return again and again. Bartlette’s generous use of oranges and browns evokes the design palette of the day. Meanwhile, reflective silver and gold recall particular childhood sensations: the early visual allure of coinage, the chrome of cinematic robots and spacecraft, those little jars of model paint and, of course, the advent of sickness and mom brandishing the thermometer.
The implied presence of a first-person subject throughout the series—implied, that is, by some of the textual elements (“Why can’t I be something else for once?” or “This little stool is mine…”)—is offset by the complete absence of human figures. This memory-world is a place of things seen, but of people only heard or implied. The certain selectivity of memory in evidence here may not be an accurate rendering of “how things were,” but it does plot a geography of a childhood captured in suspended animation.
Bartlette describes her paintings as “visual journals,” and while both series constitute reconstituted records of her early memories, the method of journaling changes appreciably as we move from the acrylics to the oils. Like the acrylics, Bartlette’s oil series contains fun, prominent child-like elements: giant ants and grasshoppers, children’s book-style textual elements, and so forth. Where the acrylics evoke a sense of free association, however, in the oils the imposition of the artist upon her work (and, indeed, upon her memories) is foregrounded. The oils’ much larger size also emphasizes their presence—nothing furtive here.
Bartlette has constructed her oil paintings in layers, the topmost comprised of didactic text one might find in an educational children’s book—“I igloo” or “U umbrella”—rendered in a clean, sans-serif font. Also included in this layer are large line-drawn images—an umbrella, tumbleweed, a grasshopper, an igloo—painted in simple, clean brushstrokes.
The institutional or iconic assurance of these elements contrasts sharply with Bartlette’s less defined but ultimately more complex paintings (or fragments of paintings) of natural motifs. These latter elements are available to us only in parts and pieces, cut up or arranged by the imposition of a plain white foreground. Drawn from the materials and textures of the natural prairie landscape—a terrain often mistakenly overlooked or dismissed as uniform or monotonous by non-prairie folk—these images are harder for us city-dwellers to place or to accommodate in the criss-cross compartmentalization of our urbanized minds.
Maybe that’s why they’re cut into pieces and boxed. The white foreground functions as an organizing strategy, recalling the layout of print publications—pamphlets, travel brochures, magazines, etc. A reference to the conventions of modernist graphic design would not be out of place, here, as Bartlette claims the massive artworks once housed in the former Winnipeg International Airport (John Graham’s “Northern Lights” and Eli Bornstein’s “Structural Relief in Fifteen Parts”) as early influences, and since subtle references to 1960s and ’70s design and décor appear throughout her acrylic series, too. Further comparisons might be made to windows open on a computer screen, or even postcards on a fridge door: an ordering of complex visual picture data that seems simultaneously careful and concise, yet somehow arbitrary, at the same time.
In a sense, where Bartlette’s acrylics are about recollection (and, indubitably, celebration) of diverse images and impressions via free association, her oils are about the process of reconciling such diverse elements to formulate knowledge. The raw impressions of memory held dear by the artist are cropped, collated and categorized, superceded by new images and subjected to the imposition of language. Bartlette’s oils show us the process of ordering and discrimination by which the impressions and observations of childhood, in all their warm, fun colours and elements, are parsed, honed and transformed into the polished arguments and mature postures of the adult mind.
- Edwin Janzen
Edwin Janzen is an artist, writer and editor based in Montreal. He holds an M.A. from the University of Ottawa, a B.F.A. from Concordia University and a B.A. (medieval history) from the University of Manitoba. Janzen serves on the board of directors of articule, a Montreal artist-run centre.
september 21 - november 04, 2012
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Winnipeg-born, Calgary-based painter Danielle Bartlette uses oil and acrylic media to examine complex relationships between place and memory. With each painting series, Bartlette draws upon techniques such as abstract expressionism, collage, typography and signage to plot her memories of a particular place, separating and recombining them in new formations. The resulting personal geographies evoke nostalgia, and then quickly bypass it, exploring and questioning the selective role of sensory experience in the formation of personal memory and subjective experience.