Deer Spirit for Frank LaPena, 1999 Acrylic on panel, 24 x 24 inches © Rick Bartow / Froelick Gallery
Rick Bartow / Froelick Gallery
Deer Spirit for Frank LaPena, 1999 Acrylic on panel is on of Rick Bartow’s ‘Things You Know But Cannot Explain’ Exhibition

Gut Wrenching Images: Rick Bartow’s ‘Things You Know But Cannot Explain’ Exhibition

Alex Jacobs

Rick Bartow walked onto his spirit journey on April 2, 2016 due to congestive heart disease. He had suffered two strokes, the last in August 2013. According to the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts, this life-changing event affected his work and we see it in the collection as “exciting examples of Bartow’s production since his stroke… that evidence a new freedom of scale and expression.”

Rick Bartow in his studio, Newport, OR, April 2015.  Photo: Charles Froelick. Courtesy of Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR

Bartow was born in Newport, Oregon on December 16, 1946 and it’s where he spent most of his life, where he was happy playing guitar and singing in his band, The Backseat Drivers. It’s also where he walked on, surrounded by family.  

Bartow was never formally trained in the arts, although his artistic nature was encouraged and he did graduate in 1969 from Western Oregon University with a degree in secondary arts education. His father Richard, was Wiyot and Yurok, Bartow was a member of the Mad River Band of Wiyot from Humboldt County in Northern California and had close ties with the local Siletz community. He enjoyed making sacred whistles, wing fans and rattles for the elders.

CS Indian, 2014 Pastel. tempera, graphite on paper. © Rick Bartow / Froelick Gallery

He considered himself working class, like his parents, doing jobs you expect there on the west coast. The trauma of Vietnam fueled alcohol and drug use but he kept working. Bartow told a story of how he found fence posts with nails that he turned into art which made his uncle angry, until he sold the piece for $1500 and his uncle started to bring him fence posts.

Bartow served in the Vietnam War (1969-71) and it was the demons of Vietnam that he spent his early years exorcising that shaped his turbulent art. He says he was “twisted” after Vietnam and his art then and now can be described as disturbing, surreal, intense, and visionary; the best word would probably be “transformative.”

Creation of Crow, 2014 Acrylic on Canvas, 36 x 48 inches © Rick Bartow / Froelick Gallery

Bartow worked himself back, surviving Vietnam, alcohol abuse and two strokes. Art was his therapy and pain was his mentor. His art seemed to show that exact moment of transformation.

This language of transformation could be linked to the storytelling traditions of his tribe, but he also used materials in ways that transforms paper, canvas and wood into visions both beautiful and disturbing. Fritz Scholder, Francis Bacon, Marc Chagall even Egon Schiele may first come to mind if you are forced to describe Bartow’s paintings, drawings and prints. But you can also see Coyote, Raven, Owl and Bear, all more or less tricksters.

Crow’s Creation V, 1992 Pastel, graphite on paper, 40 x 26 inches © Rick Bartow / Froelick Gallery

In viewing the exhibit, Bartow’s bear images are intense, as if surprising a bear in the woods who charges you, but if you look close at some, it’s his face inside the bears. The pieces made after his stroke are huge, with the ABC123 (and his birthdate) mantra that he kept repeating to help him remember who he was, as in “Deer Magic”. His use of plain white canvas is striking as if his bodies and entities are coming out of a fog or smoke. The 14 wooden pieces are also striking, small and large, some look like well-articulated puppets temporarily stopped in time but ready to move and snap out at you. The wood and metal piece “From Nothing Coyote Creates Himself” looks small in the photo but the actual piece is about 7’ long and 3’ high on its pedestal. Rick Bartow was alive and kicking when this exhibit opened in Portland so it is heartwarming to know he was literally surrounded and embraced by his artwork, family and friends.

Bear Medicine, 2014 Acrylic, graphite on canvas, 60 x 72 inches © Rick Bartow / Froelick Gallery

Bartow, was one of the nation’s most prominent contemporary Native American artists, his work is permanently held in more than 60 public institutions in the U.S., including Yale University Art Gallery, CT; Brooklyn Museum, NY; Peabody Essex Museum, MA; Eiteljorg Museum, IN; Heard Museum, AZ and Portland Art Museum, OR. He has had 35 solo museum exhibitions and his art has been referenced in over 250 books, catalogs, and articles. Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR, has represented Bartow for 20 years.

In 2012, commissioned by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Bartow created “We Were Always Here,” a monumental pair of cedar sculptures, over 20 feet high, which was installed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. 

We Were Always Here, 2012, carved Western Red Cedar, 324” x 31” x 15”. Commissioned by the Smithsonian/National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC. Photo credit: Charles Froelick. Courtesy of Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR

Organized by the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art (JSMA) at the University of Oregon, the exhibition represents 40 years of work by the Native American artist. More than 120 paintings, drawings, sculptures, and prints will be on view in Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain, a major retrospective exhibition. Things You Know But Cannot Explain is curated by Jill Hartz, JSMA Executive Director, and Danielle Knapp, JSMA McCosh Associate Curator.

“Rick Bartow’s work was all about relationships, how the worlds of nature, humans, and spirit connect, influence, and balance one another,” said Hartz. “This nearly forty-year retrospective aims to reveal the layers of Bartow’s worldview and his astonishing command of materials. It has something to say to everyone.” The impressive catalog sold out at the Santa Fe opening. I also heard that not all people could handle his imagery, as it is very intense in translating the emotions he was channeling.

Things You Know But Cannot Explain, 1979 Graphite on paper, 24 x 19  inches © Rick Bartow / Froelick Gallery

Rick Bartow: Things You Know but Cannot Explain has toured the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK; the North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks, ND; IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, NM from August 18 until December 31, 2016; and on to the Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ; Washington State University in Pullman, WA; the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, CA; and the High Desert Museum in Bend, OR ending in 2019.

Counting the Hours, 2005 Pastel, graphite on paper, 40 x 26 inches © Rick Bartow / Froelick Gallery

Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, (founded in 1992 by James Lavadour in Pendleton, Oregon) announced in July that CSIA has established a Rick Bartow Memorial Endowment Fund to support Indigenous Printmaking Residencies.

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