RICK BARTOW’S RUDE NUDES: The Artist Ventures into the Erotic

Nudity and sexuality have the power to make people uncomfortable.  The mere depiction of the naked human form is not necessarily erotic, though some might disagree.  However, for many, the words are interchangeable and highly charged.  For Native artists the themes of nudity and sexuality are even more complex.  Fearing disapproval, many Native artists have shied away from these subjects.   Rick Bartow was one Native American artist who was fearless when it came to his art – absolutely nothing was off-limits.  This is evident in much of his work, but especially in his Rude Nudes Series.  Bartow was never interested in creating “pretty pictures”.   Although his work could be darkly humorous, it was never frivolous.  Bartow wrestled with many demons – PTSD, alcoholism, and the death of his wife Julie.  His struggles are reflected in his work.  When Bartow turned his attention to the naked human form and sexuality, he did not flinch.  Rather than portraying nudes that had the form of Greek gods and goddesses, he depicted his subjects as they were – less than divine, but wholly human.  This is particularly true in Bartow’s unapologetic group of drawings titled Rude Nudes.  The artist did not intend these works to be genteel.  Their aim is made clear in the title of the series.      

Rude Nude I by Rick Bartow, pastel, graphite on paper 30 x 22” (1983).  Image courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR, and the Bartow Trust.

 For the most part, it is accepted that the model for Rude Nude I was the artist’s wife Julie.  She was Bartow’s third wife and, according to Charles Froelick, owner of the Froelick Gallery and a close friend of the artist, Julie was  “. . . the true love of his life, his band mate , , ,  his muse and devoted supporter.”  Bartow recorded Julie’s image in a number of works in a variety of ways.  In Rude Nude I he presents her as voluptuous, her large breasts prominently displayed and outlined in light red and orange as are her nipples.  Her arms are also colored light red, her lips a deeper red, and her hair, which is only partly indicated, the rest suggested, is a brassy yellow-orange.  The intensity of the colors gives the figure a strong sexual quality, intimating that this is no ethereal figure but, rather, a flesh and blood woman.

Rude Nude II by Rick Bartow, pastel, graphite on paper 30” x 22” (1983).  Image courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR, and the Bartow Trust.                                 


Rude Nude II is a bit of a mystery.  While the figure portrayed is clearly a woman, it may actually represent Rick Bartow.  The figure’s large red nose is a major clue.  In many of his self-portraits, Bartow colors his nose pink or red.  According to Charles Froelick, “He identified this gesture as a humbling reminder of his years as a drinker . . . .”  Bartow stopped drinking in 1979 and he remained sober for the rest of his life.   In his self-portraits he also frequently depicted himself wearing tinted glasses.

Female Self by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, drypoint etching (white paper), ed. 10, paper size: app. 12” x 10”; image size:  6” x 3” (2001).  Image courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR and the Bartow Trust.   


The idea that Rude Nude II could be another of the artist’s self-portraits might, at first, seem far-fetched, but it is not be the only time the artist represented himself as female; He also did so in Female Self, a 2001 drypoint etching.

Untitled Female Portrait (Rude Nude) by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, pastel, graphite on paper, 30” x 22” (1983).  Image courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR and the Bartow Trust.



Rather than idealizing his wife Julie in his Rude Nude Series by presenting her as some sort of heavenly being far above human needs, Bartow emphasized her sexuality, sometimes making her appear coarse in ways that are reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec’s images of the women of the Parisian demimonde.  In Untitled Female Portrait (Rude Nude) Bartow once again employs garish colors – red, green, yellow-orange – in a representation generally believed to be Julie.  The figure’s breasts and one nipple are emphasized by color.  The right breast is delineated by a red line while the left breast is encircled with red and colored yellow-orange. The woman’s face is the most garish part of the drawing, a mélange of colors that tend to obscure rather than reveal.  Once again, red lips stand out, while the woman’s hair is a mixture of bold colors with yellow-orange predominating as it does in Rude Nude I.  One of the more jarring aspects of this drawing is that Bartow chose to depict Julie with a cigarette dangling out of the side of her mouth.  It is an image that recalls tough, low-class “broads” in Hollywood noir films.  It is yet another way for the artist to suggest sexuality and to attack the notion that a great love somehow has to be pure.  In both Rude Nude I and Untitled Female Portrait (Rude Nude) Bartow provides the viewer a window into his relationship with his beloved Julie.  

Untitled Female Portrait (Rude Nude) by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, graphite charcoal and pastel on paper, 22 1/2” x 15” (1983).  Image courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR and the Bartow Trust.


Although Untitled Female Portrait (Rude Nude) is a title Bartow gave to two drawings in his Rude Nudes Series, each work is quite different.  This particular female nude places the viewer in a position of looking up at the figure.  Doing so makes the woman’s sex most prominent, followed by her breasts, creating a drawing that is quite ribald.  Bartow did not waver in presenting the human form.  In his Rude Nude Series, he clearly was determined to show the human body as it is and he did not shy away from depicting the body’s erogenous zones.  In fact, in the Rude Nude Series, he seems to revel in doing so.

In using the perspective of looking up from below, the artist not only focused on the woman’s genital area but also on her breasts, each pointing in a different direction with the right highlighted in red.  Once again, the woman’s lips are red, but only partially covered as if her lipstick is smeared.  The hair on the right side of her head is delineated with deep black, while the left side is simply suggested.  As Bartow sometimes did, he omitted one of the figure’s arms.  Why he did so remains a mystery.

In this drawing and in all of his Rude Nudes, Bartow wanted to startle, if not shock, his audience.  Part of the artist’s dark humor is that these drawings force the viewer to look at the human form in ways that might make them uncomfortable.

Untitled/Nude Self with Cigarette by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, pastel, graphite on paper, 30” x 22” (1982).  Image courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR and the Bartow Trust.

Known as Untitled/Nude Self with Cigarette as well as Untitled/Standing Self, this drawing is one of Rick Bartow’s many self-portraits.  In this work, the artist has chosen to bare himself completely to the world through the use of nudity.  The figure’s face is well-delineated and clearly recognizable to anyone who knew Bartow.  It is surrounded by scribbles of various colors.  The only large field of color in the drawing is a section of yellow.  Much is suggested in the drawing but, like the face, the phallus is unambiguous.

Charles Froelick had much to say about this drawing: “Bartow often made wild gestures across a page or canvas, leaving large areas unaddressed, and returning to a section or two with intricate details. He’s wearing his favorite wire-rimmed glasses; smoking, surrounded by ubiquitous ‘art mark’ indicators of the 1980’s – squiggles in multiple pastel colors. The vertical line descending from his shoulder could be a remnant of his earlier bifurcation lines, a cape, or merely a graphic device to hold the space. After working in an off-set litho shop for years, Bartow was prone to marking composition with crop lines, Xs, and Ts, as if proofing for a printer’s lay-out, but he also used these marks to balance the visual weight. Without explanation, he depicted figures with and without arms and legs . . . . “

Untitled Nude Self (Rude Nude) by Rick Bartow, Wiyot, graphite charcoal and pastel on paper 22 1/2 x 15” (1983).  Image courtesy of the Froelick Gallery, Portland, OR and the Bartow Trust.

          Of all the drawings in Rick Bartow’s Rude Nude Series, Untitled Nude Self (Rude Nude) is, perhaps, the rudest.  Bartow’s many other self-portraits focus on his face, which is not the case in here.  In this work, he forces the viewer’s attention directly to his genitals, which are squarely in the middle of the drawing and colored in red and yellow-orange. Squatting, legs open, he presents the most private part of is anatomy for all to see.  Undoubtedly, in this series and particularly in this drawing Bartow has no desire to be subdued.  Instead, he is aggressively explicit.  Although artists may create a nude self-portrait, one in which their sex is the focal point is highly unusual, perhaps unique.                  

Rick Bartow’s Rude Nude Series demonstrates his special talent for illuminating the human form.  As an artist, he was unflinching in his depiction of the human condition as he saw it; he did not allow anything to be forbidden to him.  He sometimes used nudity in his art though generally, it was not for shock effect; the exception is Rude Nudes.  In this series, Bartow obviously wanted to unsettle and shock his audience.  He succeeded.