Visual Arts

Happy Trees

If you want to see how a painter's brain is different from the gray matter of people who don't know which end of a paintbrush to hold, go look at Jennifer Bartlett's retrospective at Bentley Projects.

The show, composed of 30 paintings, sculptures and constructions chosen by the artist herself, provides the requisite historical look at the last 20 years or so of a famed artist's career, yes, but more interestingly, it gives a fascinating look at her mind, particularly in the pieces that combine a three-dimensional construction of an object with a painting of that same object. Stand in front of these for a few minutes and you'll learn more about the joy of painting than you would from a lifetime of Bob Ross videos.

Take, for example, Bartlett's 1987 piece Boats. A pair of bleached hull fragments sit side by side on the floor of the gallery. Behind them, their painted likeness looms on a nine-foot-tall canvas. Here is the object: sleek, minimal sculptures as stripped down and bare as a couple of whale teeth. Here is the painting of the object: an explosion of lush brush strokes, hyper textures and swirling, breathing colors. In the boats sitting on the floor, the shadows are cool and lifeless. But in Bartlett's painting of the boats, the shadows are living seas of warm magenta and cool purple.

You saw lifeless pieces of wood. She saw an impressionistic dream of color, dappled light and swirling wood grain.

It's like a set of before and after photos. Before, the boats were a tad drab; now they sing with life, alizarin crimson and painterly joy.

Sometimes, of course, this works the other way. You see a perfectly happy scene and the painter sees doom. You think Picasso's girlfriends really looked like monsters?

Bartlett stacks the deck a bit, just as diet clinics and plastic surgeons do when much of the After's improvement results by simply getting the ugly duckling to smile and highlighting her hair. For the painted version of the boats, Bartlett has moved them outdoors and set them in a landscape. Leaf and grass forms are scattered in the shadows, and the scene is lit by a shower of warm natural light. The sculpture version of the boats is stuck beneath fluorescent glare in Bentley's brick warehouse turned gallery.

It's this appreciation of the power of the natural world that identifies Bartlett as a painter of West Coast origins. She grew up in Long Beach in the 1950s when Southern California still seemed as innocent and unspoiled as a Beach Boys song. Sunlight and optimism, once the defining aspects of that district's identity, dance in all of Bartlett's paintings even though she has lived in New York for decades. Her work is happy, even when Bartlett seems to be talking about darker topics, which makes some critics write her off. Among the art intelligentsia, happy work typically marks you as being an idiot even faster than pretty work does, unless you are being fashionably ironic.

A 1989 painting shows a beaver peering from behind a potted pine tree as what appears to be a storm of flames, butterflies and trash rains upon him. Something apocalyptic is happening here, but the mood of the piece is still buoyant. The fact that bagels and swatches of tartan are raining on the animal as well as fire probably has as much to do with the lack of drear as the piece's bright colors.

There is even a playful tone to Bartlett's assemblages comprising rows of steel plates painted with thousands of repeating dots and hung on the wall in a mechanical grid. These pieces suggest the way computers fragment our consciousness, but Bartlett's steel plates seem less like sinister machine parts and more like a kid's puzzle pieces that can just be snapped back together. Technology threatening humanity? No way, man, it's all good. This is, after all, an artist who realized her life's calling when an animated Disney movie inspired a prepubescent Bartlett to go to her room and draw 500 Cinderellas, each with different color hair. She was even a cheerleader in high school, for Christ's sake. She's 64 now, but in Bartlett's work it's still always a sunny Saturday morning in SoCal.

The relentlessly buoyant vibe in her art, coupled with her use of basic animals, boats, mountains and houses drawn in the same manner as by a 5-year-old -- a box with a triangle on top -- has led some to loathe Bartlett's work. You know the drill: My first-grader could do this crap.

But look closely. Just because Bartlett uses simple symbols does not mean she is simple. It just means she's filtering the grown-up world through a child's lens. That's a lot harder than it seems. Anybody can see the white boat sculptures, and a kid probably can see the purple dancing in the boat shadows. Only an artist can capture that purple and freeze it for everyone else to see and, more important, feel.