Untitled, earthenware with underglazes,
vitreous slip and copper oxide, Tom Bartel.
Motley Crew: Rachel Clark and Tom Bartel
Reviewed by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2012, Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Rachel Clark and Tom Bartel are artists who are domestic partners. Their individual reputations and previous body of work stand on their own merit, but the distinction becomes an important aspect of their first exhibit together, “Motley Crew,” currently on view at Galerie Hertz.
Batboy, earthenware with underglazes,
vitreous slip and copper oxide, 2010,
Tom Bartel.
Both are presently preoccupied with the human head as a subject, with Mr. Bartel’s work continuing a fascination with earthenware head forms sporting distinctive textures, while Ms. Clark’s broadly conceived oil paintings represent a departure and deliberate attempt to create images with a relationship to her partner’s sculptures.
In his statement accompanying the exhibit, Bartel speaks of the head as “the center of ourselves,” and of the “worn” surfaces he imposes serving a narrative function, as the human skin becomes a repository of stories and experiences catalogued over a lifetime. Although he builds the forms in a traditional coil method and carefully fashioned details, they share a fundamental commonality of feature that would indicate use of a mold or form, so strong is the vision in the artist’s mind of the family of characters he is creating over time. There are undeniable changes of countenance and alterations of the shape, yet there is most definitely a “genetic” relationship that carries across most of the sculptures:  they all share the same basic DNA. In a few instances, he has added other, contrasting materials to represent hair or ornamentation; but most of them are hairless and primal in their impact. The skin is rarely smooth and unblemished; more often it exhibits rough textures and eruptions suggestive of dried or hard-baked earth, the weathered layers beginning to reveal something mysterious and dark but as yet unidentifiable. The limited palette of colors used in the surface treatment, dull but evocative earth tones that seem pulled from the subterranean, reinforce the elemental, macabre nature of the forms.
Mom Nose Best, oil on panel, 2012, Rachel Clark.
Rachel Clark’s paintings are tightly composed, framing each individual face in an almost confrontational manner that forces an attitude on the viewer. The portraits are exaggerated, often for comic effect, in a style that echoes R. Crumb and other underground comic artists who originally came to light in the 1960s; the upturned noses, garish teeth and pop eyes would fit right in. Yet there is something more innocent but also more psychologically complex about Ms. Clark’s characters. We see no bodies or environments, so the faces are presented with little or no context, just the rubbery features that often seem to be experiencing some measure of paranoia, however comically presented. One set of portraits, on round panels instead of square, represents a slightly different attitude.  Almost existing in another time from the rest of her work, they are comparable in their simplicity but conjure up formal vignette portraits from the early part of the 20th century. (A man with a full reddish blonde beard and another with a shaved head, handle-bar mustache and misshapen ear certainly seem from another age.) The latter title being “Wrestler with Cauliflower Ear” only strengthens this impression, yet it is here one also finds “Mom Nose Best,” which fits more appropriately with the other pieces that are more certain in their contemporary tone.
Oldham, oil on panel, 2012, Rachel Clark.
In the inevitable compare-and-contrast that occurs between the two artists’ works, it is interesting to note how the geometric restrictions of the panels confine the subjects and in their unforgiving framing it might be fair to say “imprisons” them, while the three-dimensional heads are allowed to exist more fully in our world and occupy the gallery space itself as an environment. The painted characters cry out for release while the sculptures freely occupy the “real” world. The simian characteristics of “Pink Fuzz Head” and the demon doll quality of “Batboy” only seem to confirm our fears that we have been invaded by fantastical creatures. They are all on display at Galerie Hertz through June 16.  
Galerie Hertz
1253 South Preston Street
Louisville, KY 40203
Tuesday-Friday 11 am-5 pm; Saturday 11am -3 pm and by appointment