With Bartlett’s ‘History,’ PAFA revisits a universe of shape and structure

“I kind of get crushes on mathematicians,” Jennifer Bartlett is quoted as saying in the catalogue accompanying “History of the Universe,” the first museum retrospective show for the 72-year-old artist at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.

Both the rigor and the romance of systems and patterns are on display in almost all of the 26 pieces in the show. Since her breakout in 1976 with “Rhapsody,” made of a grid of 987, 1-foot painted steel panels (alas, not included in the exhibition), Bartlett has invented systems to work inside of, often insubordinately.

In “House: Lines Black” (pictured above) she started with the most primary shapes of a house — a rectangle structure with a triangle roof — painted across a grid of 25 steel panels. The image is perfectly centered and perfectly aligned. She covered it with a tight web of criss-crossing black lines. The lines are squiggly, as if haphazardly dashed off. Many of them drip.

Sharing the wall is its exact negative, “House: Lines White.” Up close, a viewer ponders her process, but standing in the middle of the space, about 30 feet away, the impact of the two pieces is apparent. This is where the geometric shapes behind the web become more distinct, and the squiggly noise hums.

Many of the works in the show are diptychs, two images side-by-side, each a slightly different perspective of the same object, appearing as though she painted a white-shingled shed, or a snowed-in parking space, then moved five feet to the left and painted it again. It makes subtle but jarring juxtapositions.

For “Boats,” and “Double House” (pictured above) she went one step further to re-created those juxtaposition in real space, with the pure-white objects shaped by 2D perspective placed in front of the painting, in 3D.

In the last few years Bartlett has been using a grain brush, a kind of brush with four, five, or six small heads normally used by interior decorators to create wall texture. In Bartlett’s hands, the brush layers waving lines on top of lines, building impressionistic landscapes and floral images, almost like Monet working with a very large fork.

“Jennifer Bartlett: History of the Universe” was created by the Parrish Museum in Water Mill, New York, where it will travel after its debut at PAFA. Concurrently, Locks Gallery in Philadelphia is exhibiting “Jennifer Bartlett: Chaos Theory.”

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