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Meticulous models of expression

Special to The Times

Whatever else you call Morton Bartlett -- outsider artist, quirky amateur, proto-Postmodernist -- he was essentially a grown man who played with dolls. He constructed half-sized figures of children out of plaster, then painted, clothed, posed and photographed them. Bartlett (1909-92) described the enterprise as his hobby, its purpose “that of all proper hobbies -- to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels.”

Since 1993, when an art and antiques dealer found a stash of Bartlett’s black-and-white photographs and their carefully crafted models, the work has made the circuit as art in the self-taught vein: curious, obsessive, deeply interesting in the way it anticipates later, more self-conscious aesthetic currents.

Recently, another batch of images was found, this time in color, and 17 large prints made from the ‘50s-era Kodachrome slides are now on view at Rosamund Felsen along with a single plaster sculpture. The show presents a welcome occasion to survey this singular, compelling body of work, sentimental and ever so slightly suspect.

Bartlett was no Hans Bellmer, the Surrealist who created and photographed a highly eroticized female doll in the ‘30s. Bartlett did take care to make his dolls anatomically correct, but he rarely photographed them unclothed. Nevertheless, gender-bending aspects of his practice abound: Twelve of his 15 known figures represent young girls, and for all of them, he designed, knitted or sewed the costumes himself.

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Bartlett was also no Henry Darger, however. He doesn’t seem to have developed an elaborate (much less sexualized) narrative around his fictive creatures. His photographs show the dolls in a variety of postures and moods: striking a graceful ballet pose, reading a book, holding out a small bouquet of flowers. The images constitute a partial glossary of ordinary behaviors, most of them associated with childhood or young adulthood.

In one staged scenario of classic imaginative play, the figure of a young girl holds court with a scruffy pair of stuffed animals. In another photograph, a girl raises her somewhat clumsy plaster hand to her face, which is streaked with tea-colored tears. The expression Bartlett captures is a convincing blend of embarrassment, shame and fear.

Bartlett’s subjects are immobile and inanimate, yet they possess the peculiar ability of human surrogates to convey emotional truth. By manipulating their interchangeable limbs and painting individualized facial features, Bartlett manages to generate an expressive cast of characters -- playful and pensive, coy, frisky and flirty.

The poses and expressions might serve as clues to the motivation behind this curious project, but Bartlett’s work remains very much open to interpretation. There is certainly something fetishistic about his practice, but the same could be said of most artists with such single-minded devotion. The suggestion of prurience hangs over the work, but nothing in particular causes it to settle.

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Bartlett was orphaned at age 8 and later adopted. The gap-toothed male figures he crafted have been determined to be portraits of himself at that seminal period of his life. Bartlett never married or had children, inviting the speculation that the family of characters he created was the one he wanted but never had.

His biography has more holes than solids. Based in Boston, he worked as a photographer for a time, as a manufacturer of gift items and the manager of a gas station, and finally in publishing and advertising. He largely kept his hobby private and never exhibited his work.

The photographs borrow from studio portraiture but sometimes hint of the snapshot in their faux immediacy. The edges of the colored backdrops he used can be seen in many of the prints -- not so, it seems, in the black-and-white work reproduced in an earlier catalog. The frisson between the illusionistic figures and the overt artificiality of the setup is intriguing, though it’s impossible to know whether Bartlett sought such self-referentiality, simply didn’t mind it or intended to crop the images to a state of seamlessness.

The incongruity heightens the appeal of the pictures and makes them tantalizingly resonant with staged photographs of the 1970s onward, especially those by Laurie Simmons and David Levinthal, featuring dolls and toys. There’s even a touch of the film still in Bartlett’s work that brings to mind the character studies of Cindy Sherman.

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Bartlett achieved, intuitively, what has since become a schooled practice, the reconciliation of artifice and authenticity. His work feels oddly contemporary but also exemplary of the oldest variety of storytelling, entailing the creation of an alternate world or perhaps an idealization of the existing one.

Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through Dec. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.rosamundfelsen.com

-- Explicit works sure to raise eyebrows

Tracey Emin has a great reputation for being bad. She’s made an installation out of her sex-soiled, unmade bed and stitched the names of every person she’s slept with onto the walls of a tent. In the process she’s won the Turner Prize, had solo shows in major venues around the world and represented Britain this year at the Venice Biennale.

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Until now, Californians have largely had to settle for hearing about Emin’s exploits rather than witnessing them. But if her current show at Gagosian is any indication, art world chatter about the London-based artist is more satisfying and provocative than actually experiencing her work.

Emin’s most notorious efforts deliver too much information, and a handful of the 60-plus works here suffer from a similar crude explicitness, in their unprintable titles even more than in their imagery. She is after the kind of agonizing honesty that Egon Schiele achieved, over and over again. Instead, though, Emin comes off as merely vulnerable and needy but unable to shed her tough-girl facade.

Her work, whether painted on canvas, embroidered on cotton or emblazoned across a wall in neon, feels stunted at an adolescent phase of inarticulate yearning, flaunting and flailing. Emin’s intensity and energy are abundant, impressive even, but only a small segment of her work is memorable.

Her monoprints, especially a suite of small scrappy pages from 1994 (everything else in the show dates from 2006-07), cut the deepest, into the most private territory of childhood memory. Scarring the paper, Emin’s nervous lines describe family relations, personal fantasies and torments. Such rawness shines amid the rest of Emin’s overwrought output.

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Gagosian Gallery, 456 N. Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, (310) 271-9400, through Dec. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.gagosian.com

-- Objects spring to life in sculptures

Gordon Wagner (1915-87) started scavenging and sculpting around 1950, but his contribution to the Beat-era wave of assemblage hasn’t received as much attention as the careers of several of his peers -- Edward Kienholz, Bruce Conner and George Herms, to name a few. A selection of Wagner’s work at Tobey Moss illustrates why.

Wagner’s alchemical prowess is uneven; he doesn’t consistently transform the prosaic into the poetic. The weakest works on view, two wall-mounted box constructions, feel trite and contrived. The show also demonstrates, however, that at his best, Wagner produced work of formidable potency.

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A simple, untitled sculpture from 1950 exemplifies his ability to resuscitate expired objects. A single rusted tool mounted on a pyramid of wood, the piece is elegant and concise, an anthropomorphic folly with twin curlicues up top and a leg-like split down below.

Wagner’s more typical work joins castoff wood, ephemera and bits of metal into sculptures that suggest portraits, icons, shrines, place-scapes or still lifes. He reveled in the look and feel of well-used stuff, drawing heavily upon associations with the lives that rubbed against it. “With us assemblagists, nothing is safe, but everything is sacred,” Herms aptly wrote in a recent homage to his late friend and colleague.

“The Mexican Night Clerk” (1960-65), the show’s powerful centerpiece, has a tactile exuberance in spite of its dark, foreboding demeanor. Layered atop part of a wooden door are a beat-up “Vacancy” sign, an old photograph beneath grimy glass, a faded patch of brocade, the rusted innards of a clock and a manual typewriter whose keys have been mangled into an alphabetic jumble. The rawness of Kienholz comes to mind, and also the emotionally dense work of Michael McMillen, a member of Wagner’s extended circle and one of many such colleagues included in the gallery’s hodgepodge complementary show, " . . . And Friends.”

Tobey Moss Gallery, 7321 Beverly Blvd., L.A., (323) 933-5523, through Dec. 29. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.tobeycmossgallery.com

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-- Flow of wood evokes motion

British sculptor Richard Deacon’s latest feat rises, dips, twists and turns like a roller coaster 28 feet down the length of L.A. Louver’s main gallery. It is an extraordinary material specimen and a wonderland of allusion.

There is nothing inert about the piece, called “Dead Leg” and made in association with Matthew Perry. The oak that serves as the bare bones of the work has been revivified (through a strenuous process involving steam and pressure) into fluid, gestural motion. Multi-stranded wooden lines loop with lyrical abandon, stemming from and coming back to rest in a single form that could be read as the titular dead leg, a stiff, prosthetic thing or a crutch. A hollow bat where it rests on the floor, the cylinder morphs into a square as it rises and splits into two strands that careen from their source, harnessed at intervals by coolly elegant brackets of stainless steel.

Deacon creates poetry in the space where the organic and mechanical meet, where the spontaneity of the body partners with the restrained rigor of the industrial. The piece is supplemented by a separate gallery full of small, vibrantly colored plaster sculptures that look like little more than sophisticated chunks of chalk. “Dead Leg” is the main event, a brilliantly engineered balletic ode to wildness and captivity, a mellifluous, unlikely tangle of ribboned wood, pure linear thrust coming to rest with the full stop of an exclamation point.

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L.A. Louver, 45 N. Venice Blvd., Venice, (310) 822-4955, through Jan. 12. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.lalouver.com


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