Huge paintings hang like great tapestries in a baronial hall. Hangings of yore might have told stories of valour, and of rural or heavenly idyll; Richard Bartle’s spectacular paintings are of cackling demons, mischievously chopping trees, stealing donkeys and dancing debaucherously. A curious wooden cart, skilfully and lovingly-crafted, laden with chairs and symbolism, is an evocative centrepiece to Nomadic Tales, an adaptation of a common sight in Istanbul through the ages.
The inspiration for this ambitious installation is artist Siyah Kalem's collection of drawings and paintings from the late 14th and early 15th century, that crossed the borders of Turkey, Iran, China and Mongolia. Richard was so captivated by the beauty of this artwork when he saw it in a 2005 exhibition, that he took an artist’s residency in Istanbul, supported by the Making Ways fund, in order to research Siyah Kalem (also known as Black Pen) and Turkish culture at first hand.
After a period of reconnaissance, becoming more familiar with life in Istanbul, Richard felt confident enough to use Siyah Kalem and his similar position as an outsider looking on, as a starting point for this body of work. The more time he spent in the city the more he identified connections between the original collection and contemporary life. An awareness (fear?) of demons has survived down the years and Richard’s work contains allusions to superstition and ritual. Lucky charms adorn all the demons. By removing their features, redacting their identity, the silhouettes become hosts to integral aspects of modern life – hedonism, rivalry, loss, conflict – each cleverly teased out with an exuberant use of materials and means of application. Acrylic paint is thick enough to be combed in swirling pattern with a tool used for tiling, and thin enough to stain and be splashed as appropriate, suggesting grubby concrete and bloody spatters. The stencilling and spray paint of street art is appropriated, introducing a sharp political edge, and a prominent use of gold is pointedly juxtaposed with patterns of broken tiles.
The skill of artists is to carry fundamental, often personal, meaning whilst simultaneously offering everyone means for engagement, be they recognisable, familiar imagery, seductive tactility, or jewels of colour. Richard gives us the specific motifs of a chainsaw, a dance-floor, political figures – with which we can identify and form our own conclusions. This show is poignant and playful.
For all the subtleties and richness of references, the exploration of the contemporary human condition through Siyah Kalem’s extraordinary prism, Nomadic Tales is a rare treat for the eye, a celebration of what beautiful stuff paint can be in the hands of a skilled practitioner.
- Words by
- Sean Williams
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