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Morton Bartlett & Thomas Ruff

The pencil marks are soft, neat and painstaking – clearly amateur, but not without some accomplishment. In the six modestly scaled drawings, the viewer can see the artist’s absorption in his work, and perhaps guess the delicate pleasures and pin pricks of frustration that he felt in trying to bring his subjects to life. The subjects are always the same: little girls who appear to be around nine or ten years old. From their clothes, hairstyles and demeanour, these children seem to date from the mid-20th century. They all wear simple dresses or skirts and blouses; some have ribbons in their hair. Their poses are self-consciously ‘natural’, like those once used for modelling children’s fashions. One adjusts her straw hat; another rests her weight on one leg like a ballet dancer. Here and there, the expressions of these girls tip from perky toward coquettish, yet remain just within the general register of innocence.
Alongside these weightlessly slight yet oddly tenacious drawings, and thus sharing the syrupy gravitational field of their psychic presence, are three large colour c-type print photographs depicting the slightly blurred image of a woman posing in a pale, non-descript interior. Her auburn hair is pinned up, and she is wearing red underwear, black stockings and suspenders, black high-heeled shoes and a clinging black vest. These are pixellated digital images that have been enlarged, and their consequent blurring heightens both the visual softness and the bland impersonality of their generically soft-pornographic subject matter. At the same time, the colours and composition appear serendipitously deft and painterly, enlivened with passages of elegance and monumentality.
As conceived for this exhibition by artist Christoph Schellberg, the seemingly inappropriate pairing of Bostonian outsider artist Morton Bartlett’s (1909–92) untitled drawings and German photographer Thomas Ruff’s ‘Nudes’ (2009) becomes a somewhat atonal duet on the themes of enigma, intention and authorship. It is a show that catches the viewer unaware, baited with a beguiling tension between American gothic and the digital aesthetic, the sexually explicit and the psychosexually implicit. By abutting soft-porn images – trawled by Ruff from the shallower reaches of cyberspace – with Bartlett’s amateur portraits of young girls, Schellberg creates a discursive void between them that could only be bridged – and even then with difficulty – by turning attention to process and biography respectively.
Bartlett has long been regarded as a significant figure within US outsider art. A Harvard-educated lifelong bachelor who worked primarily (and without much success) in the printing trade, he referred in his autobiographical note for the ‘Class of 1932, 25th Anniversary Report’ to his ‘hobby’ of ‘sculpting in plaster’: ‘Its purpose is that of all proper hobbies,’ he wrote, ‘to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels.’ Bartlett sculpted both boys and girls in half human scale, but anatomically detailed, and dressed them in clothes that he also designed and made himself. He also photographed his figures, posed alone or in groups. The drawings on display in Cologne were made primarily as part of the clothing-design process.
Whether Bartlett’s mannequins were made to stand in for a family he never had, or whether they requited some psychosexual desire, or both, will be forever open to conjecture. Seen alongside Ruff’s chilly excursions into the capacities of the contemporary image and the dreary wastes of online porn, the Boston bachelor’s sunny children appeared like fleeting ghosts. This discreet yet memorable exhibition evoked above all a sense of psychic restlessness. One left the exhibition wanting souls to rest in peace – all of them – everywhere.

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.

Issue 137

First published in Issue 137

March 2011
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