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OVERLOOKED: Rick Bartow’s Drypoint Etchings

Most collectors of Rick Bartow’s work focus on his paintings, sculptures, and large monotypes, overlooking his drypoint etchings.  This is unfortunate since these small prints are among the artist’s most visceral works.  Rick Bartow used drypoint etching to explore a wide range of themes and subject matter.  The technique involves using a stylus or “needle” to incise images onto a plate, which is then inked to produce prints.  Since only a small number of good impressions can be taken from one plate, drypoint etchings are done in limited runs, usually twenty prints or less.  The works Rick Bartow created using this technique are among the artist’s most powerful creations, some of which he hand colored.  Rick Bartow’s drypoint etchings reveal a wide range of influences – his Wiyot heritage, Vermeer, Klimt, Chagall, Max Beckmann, Francis Bacon, Odilon Redon, Horst Janssen, Edward Hopper, Hieronymus Bosch, Expressionism, Surrealism, Japanese Ukiyo-e prints as well as music and literature.  He created portraits of writers he admired such as Franz Kafka and Bertolt Brecht and of characters from his favorite books such as Captain Ahab from Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick.  Bartow also produced portraits of his favorite composers including Giuseppe Verdi, Gioachino Rossini, and Niccolò Paganini as well as of fellow artists Claude Monet, Käthe Kollwitz, Egon Schiele, and Hans Holbein the Younger.

 Giuseppe Verdi by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint/etching, 2/10, paper size: 9”w x 12”h; image size: 4”w x 5.25”h  (2000).  Collection of E. J. Guarino.

Giuseppe Verdi (detail)

 

Among Rick Bartow’s many portraits, Giuseppe Verdi is a standout.  Although the purpose of a portrait is to record the likeness of a person, artists do not simply use this genre solely for  the purpose of documentation, but to reveal something about their subject such as their personality and character – who they truly are.

Photographic portrait of Giuseppe Verdi by Giacomo Brogi.

 

In most portraiture the person is usually looking directly at the viewer.  However, in Barttow’s Giuseppe Verdi the composer’s eyes are looking at something the viewer cannot see – perhaps his next opera.  Since Verdi died in 1901, Bartow obviously did not create his likeness from life, but was inspired to do so by his admiration for the composer of Aida, La Traviata, Rigoletto, Il Travatore, Otello, La Forza del Destino, Un Ballo in Maschera and I Vesper Siciliani – all opera masterpieces.  During his career Verdi composed over twenty-five operas.

Ahab by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint etching, ed. 1/6, image: 4.5” x 3.5”; paper: 9.5” x 7” (2003).  Collection of E. J. Guarino

Ahab (detail)

 

Ahab is one of Rick Bartow’s imaginary portraits of a character from a literary work.  According to Charles Froelick, owner of the Froelick Gallery and friend of the artist, Moby Dick was one of the Bartow’s favorite books – “the ones he’d want if stranded on an island.  Growing up in Newport, Oregon, on the Yaquina Bay, he knew many who spent their lives fishing the Pacific Ocean.  He knew the tragedies and the wonder of the open sea.  He named many works after characters in Moby Dick.”  Bartow visually captured the torment of Melville’s main character.  One can feel Ahab’s anguish, hatred, and fanaticism

Ahab by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, hand colored.drypoint etching9.5 x 7”, ed. 2/6, plus 2  artist’s proofs (#2/14) 2003 Ahab by Rick Bartow, hand colored drypoint etching, 9.5” x 7”,  edition of 14 (#X/IV) 2003.
Photos courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR.

 

            Bartow also did two hand-colored versions of Ahab, one in which blue predominates and another in which red is prominent.  The addition of color to each of these drypoint etchings intensifies the emotional tone of the work.  Wilder Schmaltz, Assistant Director of the Froelick Gallery, commented on the colored versions, stating, “. . . the blue, which is with colored pencils and very slight areas of gouache, really accompany the base image rather than modify it much. The dense blue area is a kind of cooling oceanic touch. The gouache application in the red piece adds an additional layer of articulation around the eyes, the nose, cheeks; the tongue that he defines in this is not present in any of the other impressions, and the white around the mouth really gives a sense of a cry or release. The dark blue at bottom suggests near-submersion.”

Self 00 by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint/etching, 6/10, paper size: 8”w x 11.5”h; image size: 1.5”w x 2.5”h (2000).  Collection of E. J. Guarino

Self 00 (detail)

                   Among Rick Bartow’s drypoint etchings there are quite a number of self-portraits.  Some are symbolic, some display elements of surrealism, and many are representational, showing how the artist looked at a particular point in his life.

Self 00 shows the artist wearing his signature eyeglasses as well as a hairstyle that he had throughout much of his career.  The hair is thinning and the face is lined and a bit weary.  The fact that the glasses are, in essence, blackened out suggests that Bartow was concentrating on looking inward rather than outward.

Headband by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, hand colored drypoint/etching, A/P, 9”w x 11.5”h (2001).  Collection of E. J. Guarino

 

Produced the year after Self 00, Headband is another Bartow self-portrait.  In this work, the artist presents an image of himself that is in sharp contrast to the earlier print.  In it Bartow portrays himself wearing a bandana that suggests the Stars and Stripes, which is a reference to the time he spent serving in the Viet Nam War.  In Headband, the artist’s vision is not obscured.  His eyes are clearly visible through his eyeglasses.  Headband and Self 00 suggest two aspects of the artist’s nature: at times he was introspective, but he also engaged with the world and was willing to face life head on.  Over the years Rick Bartow had to deal with his Viet Nam War experiences, the loss of his wife to breast cancer as well as other personal problems.  These struggles have informed his art.  Bartow was clearly an artist who was not afraid to confront his personal demons.

Headband has a number of curious aspects.  In addition to the artist writing his name across the print, he also added Japanese characters, and the letters MC.  At the bottom of the page there is an embossed printer’s chop showing a dog jumping over the moon.  According to Wilder Schmaltz, the Kanji characters are a phonetic approximation of the artist’s name.  The letters MC are more problematic and remain a mystery.  No one at the Froelick Gallery has any idea as to what they mean or to whom they might refer.  “We’ve put our heads together,” Schmaltz said, “and can’t say with any certainty what MC might refer to here. It’s a pencil addition that is not part of the original print- it could have been the initials of someone nearby when he did the hand coloring, or an artist he had in mind… it doesn’t appear to be related to any of his close friends that we might know of.”

  Chop for Moon and Dog Press, South Beach, OR/Tokyo, Japan

 

The printer’s chop stands for Moon and Dog Press, the studio that Rick Bartow and master printer Seiichi Hiroshima founded.  The two men began their collaboration in 1997.  Bartow would scratch images onto plexiglass and metal plates and mail them to Japan.  Seiichi Hiroshima would print the images on paper and send them back to the the artist.  Both Bartow and Hiroshima traveled between Japan and Oregon over a number of years, resulting in the creation of a large body of drypoint etchings and monotypes under the name of the printing studio they co-founded: Moon and Dog Press.

Looking Back Crow by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint/etching, 3/20, paper size: 23”w x 18”h; image size: 13”w x 10”h (2001).  Collection of E. J. Guarino

At twenty three inches by eighteen inches, with an image size of thirteen inches by ten inches, Looking Back Crow is one of Rick Bartow’s largest drypoint etchings.  What at first appears to be simply the representation of a crow is actually much more.  The bird is rendered in an expressionistic manner, a hallmark of the artist’s work.  This gives the print a level of emotionality that would otherwise be missing.  Bartow frequently used animals as surrogates for himself.  With regard to this the artist stated, “. . . hawks, owls, eagle, coyote, beaver and on and on – they are me and I am them in observation and lesson.”  Bartow has also employed this device with the raven, the hawk, the eagle, the crow, and the bear – each animal expressing a different aspect of the artist’s personality.  The image of the animal becomes a self-portrait with the animal symbolically representing the artist.  The crow, which is one of the most intelligent creatures in the animal kingdom, is an important culture figure in Northwest Coast Native American mythology.  Like the raven, the crow is seen as a mischievous trickster as well as a figure that often helps humans.  The title Looking Back Crow suggests that when the artist created the print, he was reflecting on his life and career.  The print also contains what appear to be stray marks.  Bartow’s drypoint etchings often contain what can best be described as “dots,” “splats,” and “scribblings” that give his drypoint etchings a spontaneous feel.  Mark-making was the essence of Rick Bartow’s creativity.  He believed that “In the mark . . . you can’t lie. . . .”

Hawk Vision by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint/etching, 2/10, paper size: 10”w x 11”h; image size: 4.25”w x 3.25”h (2009).  Collection of E. J. Guarino 

Hawk Vision (detail)

                   While many of Rick Bartow’s paintings are strongly expressionistic quite a number of his works on paper, such as Hawk Vision, have a surrealistic quality.  The human face, particularly eyes, play an important role in many of Bartow’s

drypoint etchings.  Many of these prints contain portraits or self-portraits.  However, sometimes, as in Hawk Vision, it is not possible to determine whether the faces are of real people or simply imaginary ones.  Over the two faces the artist superimposed the image of a hawk’s head, which gives the print a surreal and mystical tone.  Referring to hawks, Bartow stated, “They’re auspicious. . . I think they are quite special.  They are cautionary: warn of impending danger . . . They remind me to be vigilant.”  Hawk Vision is not the only Bartow drypoint etching to contain the word vision in the title.  The use of this word suggests that the work is deeply symbolic.  Bartow’s art is intensely personal and often reflects the artist’s difficult inner struggles.

The blending of imagery also gives the piece a transformational quality, another important aspect of Bartow’s work.  As the artist put it, “. . . what later came to be referred to as ‘transformational’ arrived at the end of my #2 Ticonderoga pencil. . . .”  Although transformation plays an important role in many Native cultures, Bartow expands the conceit from the traditional concept of humans and animals being able to change into one another to the idea that everything we know is in a constant state of change.

 Salmon Boy by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint/etching, 3/20, paper size: 7.5”w x 9.5 ”h; image size: 2”w x 4.5”h (2003).  Collection of E. J. Guarino. 

Salmon Boy (detail)

            Rick Bartow produced two prints with the title Salmon Boy, the first in 2003 and the second in 2015, the year before he died.  In the first version, a young boy, who appears to be naked, holds a large salmon that hides most of his body.  His hair stands straight up similar to the style in which Bartow often wore own his hair.  Although, at first glance, the print has a tone of innocence, there are strange lines drawn over the boy’s face and mouth suggesting that somehow his voice has been silenced.  The work may also be Bartow’s representation of himself as a young boy before he had found his artistic voice.        

Salmon Boy by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint etching, ed. 4/8, 15″ x 22” image and paper, (2015).  Collection of Edward J. Guarino

Twelve years later, the artist returned to the subject of salmon boy, producing a work that It is both surreal and deeply symbolic. It is quintessential Rick Bartow.  When the artist produced this work he was keenly aware of his own mortality and that time was growing short.  The print contains images of severed fish heads and a boy, perhaps a corpse, superimposed over a somewhat skeletal salmon.  One side of the boy’s chest appears to be scratched out and he holds a circle. In this way, the artist associates the transience of human life with that of the salmon, which hatches, travels to the vast oceans where it spends a good part of its life, then, against great odds, travels upstream to its place of origin to spawn and finally die as the cycle begins again.  In the salmon’s tail is an eye.  It is a symbol that the artist has used in many works.  Although it may suggest the All-Seeing Divine, it could just as easily represent the ability of artists to perceive aspects of existence that are closed to the rest of humanity.

            Rick Bartow packed a great deal of meaning into everything he created, including his drypoint etchings.  Their size belies their importance.  As with all of the artist’s work, they somehow manage to be both personal as well as universal.  However, it is quite understandable that most collectors of Bartow’s work would have little awareness of his drypoint etchings or much interest in them.  Unlike the the artist’s paintings and sculptures, which are large, impressive, and can always be on display, the drypoint etchings are small and sensitive to light, requiring that they be rotated periodically or kept in the dark of archival boxes.  Nonetheless, these prints comprise a significant part of the artists creative output.  Because the artist was drawing directly on an etching plate rather than paper, there was no possibility for erasure.  As the image came from Bartow’s head it went directly onto the plate.  As a result, the drypoint etchings he created are highly charged emotional works that deal with subjects that were most important to him.  What these works lack in size they more than make up for in psychological impact and are among Rick Bartow’s most important creations.

 

The author would like to express his sincere gratitude to Charles Froelick, owner of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, Oregon, and to Wilder Schmaltz, Assistant Director of the Froelick Gallery, for their invaluable help with this article.

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