Alexander Bartleet – an artist with the Midas touch

Metal, Alexander Bartleet
Warwick Henderson Gallery
Until August 25


Like many collectors, Alexander Bartleet accumulates the objects and fragments of his daily life. His creations are records of his life – but they are also time capsules, encapsulations of time and place.

His assemblages or installations take the form of painted constructions or constructed paintings which are confusing, intriguing and mysterious, as well as being remarkably simple and ordinary. They are both obviously realist as well as being utterly abstract.

He collects hundreds of small objects, the discards of a consumer society – cellphones, keys, bits of chain and rope, electronic components, tape cassettes, strips of wood and metal – and, as something of an artists in joke, a paint brush.

These objects are then randomly, or quite possibly carefully, assembled and then sealed with layers of paint, preserving the mundane objects in a collage which owes much to the cubist notion of portraying objects of the everyday.

But these simple assemblages begin to take on greater complexity the more the viewer attempts to understand or ascribe meaning to the works.

At a very basic level, these are really just traditional still life paintings where the artist has selected a group of objects which the viewer is asked to consider.

Traditional still life works often had religious and allegorical symbolism relating to the objects depicted and more contemporary still life’s can take on personal, social and political readings.

The various groups of objects could also be seen as the artist inventing a narrative or a puzzle where there are clues or links between the objects. They become a witty and convoluted version of a da Vinci code.

The works can also be considered as some form of contemporary archaeological investigation in which the detritus of the rubbish pile or the drawer of discarded items is carefully documented and analysed to provide a key to understanding of contemporary culture.

They could equally be evidence which is the focus of a forensic investigation, with the objects being examined in order to reconstruct an event or time frame.

In these various readings of the work we are impelled by the natural curiosity of bringing order and meaning to what may appear to be random or arbitrary occurrences. We become Sherlock Holmes-like in our quest for the truth.

It only takes a small toy figure as in "Aluminium Rough 2" ($1750) to sense a strange super heroes tale or the single letter “H” in “Brass 2” ($1750) to begin scanning all the objects to see if this puzzle, is solvable or whether it is an enigmatic conundrum of the artist's own invention.

The way in which these assemblages appear to be sections of some larger unit from which it has been excised is reminiscent of the environmental work of the Boyle Family, who reconstructed sections of actual sections of the Earth chosen at random.

The large work “Gisborne Triptych” in the Auckland Art Gallery collection where they constructed a section of Gisborne street is a larger scale version of Bartleet’s creations.

Like the Boyle Family, he records a section of his actual world, a slice of reality which is arbitrary and flawed.

In this new exhibition “Metal” there is greater sophistication with an emphasis on the way in which the objects have been made into metal objects as though they have been cast in gold, silver or bronze, and that they are precious objects in their own right as well as being a collection of objects.

Ultimately, like most artists Bartleet is involved with transformation, of turning raw material and simple ideas into something else – in his case turning the detritus of life into expressive, virtuoso, creations of significance.