Calgary-based painter Danielle Bartlette spent much of 2005 and 2006 working as a server at the Oyster Bar dining room in Edinburgh’s historic, ornate Café Royal. These paintings arose out of her efforts, as a newcomer, to adjust to the social world of this marvelous space, both a historical landmark and a magnet for travelers and tourists. Each painting is part retrospection, part melancholic reflection — recollections or entries in Bartlette’s pictorial journal.
Bartlette allows each scene to set itself with robust colours in oil and metallic powders, together with suggestions of architectural forms, square or rectangular. These shapes and forms represent the Oyster Bar’s chambers, fixtures and décor — a wine cellar in #4 Wine Bottles, chequered marble floors in #6 Castle, and so on. In contrast to the Dutch masters, in whose work every detail is fully, visibly present at every moment, here each moment is a blur, an overall imprint — the impression, perhaps, of an overwhelmed first-time visitor to a small, ornate space jammed with decorative clutter. Detail blends into detail, until the whole is merely a whirl to which the only meaningful response — and possibly all that remains as recollection — is a feeling.
Seemingly elevated above this background of indistinct, emotive forms and impressions are various paired, iconic devices: a lobster with an umbrella in #8 Lamp Post; a chess piece with a star in #2 Stained Glass; and so on. These icons recall other, similar signs and symbols erected all across Europe as tourist markers. If belonging is usually characterized by qualities like place and work, the characteristics of tourism must surely be displacement, play and (thus) imposition. Superimposed upon the painted regions beneath, Bartlette’s brightly coloured iconic symbols float fleetingly on the surface of each work, signposts calculated to beckon and then banish, as momentarily pertinent as the tourist is momentarily impertinent. The painter is fully apprised of this impertinence; indeed, aware of the vast social chasm between tourist and “regular,” Bartlette struggled to learn and adjust, a newcomer in a place of long histories and established customs.
Juxtaposed against the foregoing elements are scrawled large monochromatic symbols after which the paintings are titled, blazoned simply and boldly in graffiti-like gestures: in #10 Chandelier, a chandelier; in #6 Castle, a castle; a lamp in #8 Lamp Post; etc. These symbols clash with the impressionistic backgrounds and the designerly icons. We can read them as inscriptions or vocalizations, the artist laying aside one voice and then another (the newcomer, the tourist) to strike up a third voice. This new voice is truly her own assertion, the artist inscribing herself above the earlier ones, quite the way we accommodate ourselves to new spaces and situations, creating belonging by inscribing them with familiar symbols and objects.
As journal entries, artifacts that prompt or aid the act of recollection, Bartlette’s paintings are necessarily layered with impression and emotion. By incorporating these layers — multiple ways of seeing — into each work, Bartlette reveals how a well traveled public space may conceal complex social terrains. These paintings are an aesthetic account of the artist’s struggle to negotiate the social terrain particular to Edinburgh and the Café Royal, negotiating an uneasy passage from transience to belonging.
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. His thesis exhibition, “Guys In Caves,” was held in the Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War Museum, in 2010. Janzen is a member of the board of directors of articule, the Montreal artist-run centre.
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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.