"When I'm working, I'm simply working, setting up problems visually that need resolution. In the process, I'm looking for resolution to conundrums in my life, questions in my life, as well as visually looking for problems that I can fix."
— Rick Bartow
Right at the entrance to "Things You Know But Cannot Explain," you'll see a small drawing in graphite on paper. Rick Bartow drew it in 1979, when he was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder from military service in the Vietnam.
It's a disturbing picture, not unlike "The Scream." During the war, Bartow never served in the field. He was a teletype officer. He was also a musician, though, and he was recruited to play guitar for injured soldiers in hospitals.
"I think that helplessness really hurt him deeply, to see the trauma his fellow Army officers were going through," said Danielle Knapp, co-curator of a traveling exhibition at the Missoula Art Museum.
It's a major retrospective of the late Oregon-based Wiyot artist's work, spanning from 1979 until right before his death in 2016.
Across the room, you can view paintings and drawings created after 2013, when he suffered a stroke. Having recovered, he began rapidly producing more work. The pieces include a self-portrait in a wheelchair, titled "Buck."
"It's kind of a like a bookend on this project and honoring Rick's life in this way," Knapp said.
The works cover all the identities he "embraced and wrestled with in his life," she said. He lost a wife to breast cancer. He was a father, a Vietnam veteran, a Native man, a musician, a visual artist, a recovering alcoholic, and a stroke survivor. They also cover the recurring themes, such as figures, cross-cultural conversations, and emphasis on gesture.
Knapp and Jill Hartz of the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the University of Oregon in Eugene began curating the exhibition with Bartow years before he died of heart problems in 2016 at age 69. They'd envisioned traveling with him to celebrate his work and elevate his story, she said.
Bartow's stroke didn't diminish the size or ambition of his work — many of these are nearly 100 inches wide.
In "Buck," a figure in a military jacket sits in a wheelchair. The legs are defined and full, the wheels are rendered thinly. On a scumbled background, he wrote three words: "Indian," "hero," and "buck," the latter being the nickname for a sergeant.
"Him putting that in a painting was so raw and personal," she said, adding that, "all of his work was raw and personal, he wasn't hiding anything from people."
In these later works, Knapp sees "even greater freedom of expression" and boldness of color. He was working quickly and ambitiously "reclaiming agency," she said.
They also show the range of emotions in his work, where happiness and joy are as intensely rendered as pain.
"It's important to fall into a trap of thinking about his work as one way, just from focusing on the trauma that we can read in it. His whole life he had a good sense of humor," she said.
In a 2011 interview with the Missoulian, Bartow said, "it's not my intention to horrify or shock; it's just making marks and see where they lead you. It's OK to laugh at stuff. I don't think all art needs to be heavy, and I think if you look at my work in that light, you see that there."
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His work celebrates music, artists, and stories that inspired him, too.
While he was fond of figures with open mouths and teeth bared, Bartow would tell her that they could be singing or laughing. Just take a look at "Bear Medicine," in which a human figure with a bear's head appears to be dancing — a ghostly leg implies movement, as do the limbs.
It's set on a white background, with large fields of pink. One corner is a harvest yellow patch, like the sun.
"He was so good at capturing movement in his works," she said, noting that he could often work so fast that the pastel would skip across the paper, an effect you can see in the lines.
Other late pieces directly address his health. According to Knapp, some of the text is related to his stroke.
"As the stroke was coming on, he felt like he was hearing machinery in his head, just turning and wiping out memories, and he remembered repeating to himself 'a-b-c-1-2-3' — just building blocks of language, because he felt like he was trying to grasp at something," she said. After he recovered, he was able to play music, but couldn't remember the words.
In "Deer Magic," another large work with judicious pink and yellow on a white background, he filled the area around a deer-headed figured with rows of scrawled text: "a-b-c-1-2-3." (In one block of the text, he's tucked in a word: "elevate.")
One of the themes that Knapp has used to organize the show is "dialogue," since Bartow was constantly having a conversation between different worlds. He was a devoted fan of Francis Bacon and modern painters, and he also loved travel and drawing on indigenous cultures.
She said his gallerist, Charles Froelick, called him "a visual omnivore, and it's so true, because he would just funnel all these things that inspired him and create a really beautiful response to that without it being a really direct appropriation of imagery."
His father was Wiyot, from the Northern California area, and he had a close connection with their stories and history, including an 1860 massacre by white settlers.
"He carried that sensitivity into his compassion for others' stories," Knapp said. In the MAM show, "Nak May Kway Let Way" ("My crying eyes for you") is part of a series he made after traveling to New Zealand for an exhibition in 1996. The museum sought his advice on how to repatriate some items from its collections: bones of Native American women. He was able to help connect them with people in the United States to restart the process.
"He made that piece in response to that trauma of that reality of how many peoples were treated like museum objects, or collections objects historically, and the continuing pain of that process," she said.
A figure, rendered in purple and black, has eyes peer out but no mouth, symbolizing that they had been silenced.
Bringing his work around the country without him has been difficult, since "everyone who knew him in life feels the absence of his presence" and others have to talk about him in his place. But the paintings speak for themselves and maybe don't need explanation.
"He poured it all out in his artwork," she said.