Editor’s Letter | Honoring Rick Bartow

A major retrospective for the late Native artist

By Kristin Hoerth

Counting the Hours by Rick Bartow at the Autry Museum.

Counting the Hours by Rick Bartow at the Autry Museum.

This story was featured in the October 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art October 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Earlier this summer I was in the coastal town of Newport, OR, in the lobby of the Sylvia Beach Hotel, when a few framed drawings on the wall caught my eye. I knew the imagery was familiar, and sure enough, they were little gems by Rick Bartow, a prominent Native American artist who passed away in 2016. I immediately remembered the story we’d published on Bartow way back in 2004; his paintings, mixed-media works, and sculptures are powerful and hard to forget. What I hadn’t known but soon discovered was that the artist was a native, and a longtime resident, of Newport, having lived and worked in the very same neighborhood where I was standing at that moment.

Coincidentally, Bartow’s work is on view now through January 6 in a major retrospective at the Autry Museum in Los Angeles. Titled Things You Know But Cannot Explain, it was organized by the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon. The show includes more than 100 works covering a 40-year span of Bartow’s career. According to W. Richard West Jr., the Autry’s president and CEO, the exhibit is “a major contribution to the growing corpus of scholarship on contemporary Native artists” and helps to “broaden conventional interpretations of Native art.”

Indeed, Bartow’s deeply personal work moves far beyond traditional definitions of American Indian art. His paintings and drawings often include human-animal hybrid forms that seem to shape-shift across their surfaces. For many viewers, they bring to mind echoes of 20th-century masters like Robert Rauschenberg and Jean-Michel Basquiat. In our 2004 article, Bartow himself referred to his work as gestural expressionism. “It’s about making the mark, and it’s done in an in-your-face area,” he said. “I work on paper that’s 26 by 40 inches, so when you look at it, the center’s just above eye level of the viewer. It’s right there in your face.”

Bartow was a member of the Mad River Band of the Wiyot tribe of Northern California. He graduated from Western Oregon University and served in the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1971. After a period of recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism, he began his creative practice in part to cope with and process those experiences. “How that all comes out, or how it all affected me,” he said, “maybe it’s in the color or the form, but I really don’t know.” What he did know was this: “If you can make marks, you can survive. Fortunately, I’ve been able to make my mark.”

This story was featured in the October 2018 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art October 2018 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

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