Art

Rick Bartow, the Native American Vietnam Veteran Who Confronted Loss Through Art

The Autry Museum surveys the four-decade career of Bartow, who discovered the restorative and transformative powers of art making.

Installation view, Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain, the Autry Museum (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — In 2013, artist Rick Bartow suffered a major stroke. Within days of nearly losing his memory and motor skills, he was back in the studio, drawing and painting his way back to health. Until his death, just three years later, Bartow continued to produce artworks drawn from his personal history, Native American ancestry, and friendships with artists and indigenous peoples from around the world. Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain at the Autry Museum surveys the four-decade career of an artist who confronted personal loss and history through the restorative and transformative powers of art making.

Rick Bartow, “ABC 123” (2013), paste, graphite on paper

“ABC 123,” a self-portrait made shortly after Bartow recovered from his stroke, documents his experience of losing and recovering his memories. Letters and numbers serve as mnemonic devices, repeated alongside the artist’s handprints. Bartow’s face, identifiable by his wire-frame glasses, is frozen in terror as he confronts the possibility of losing recollection of the past. A graphite drawing from 1979, the exhibition’s namesake, echoes this later portrait by featuring another figure whose face is a rictus of terror. This work reflects on Bartow’s earlier life, specifically the despair following his military service in the Vietnam War.

By all accounts, Rick Bartow was an unwilling combatant, working as a teletype operator and hospital musician in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his time abroad, but suffered from PTSD and substance abuse upon returning to the US. While his artworks avoid representing specific wartime experiences, graphite drawings from the artist’s early career express raw emotion, translating ineffable feelings of despair into visceral portraits of physical and psychological horror.

Nearly losing his memories might have encouraged Bartow to confront parts of his history he did not embrace during most of his life. A year before his death, he painted “Buck,” a portrait of himself as a veteran, with a striped badge on his right arm to indicate rank and a wheelchair for his ailing health. In faint letters, “Indian” and “Hero” flank Bartow in mock salute. The self-portrait is one of few examples of the artist acknowledging his status as a veteran and physical vulnerabilities as an older adult.

Rick Bartow, “Buck” (2015), acrylic on canvas

In 1996, Bartow returned from a visit to New Zealand, where he was invited to show his work, and produced a series of paintings confronting a painful episode in his family history. During his visit to a gallery in Christchurch, he was presented with a box of five human skulls that was kept in storage. Shockingly, these skulls belonged to American Indians and led the artist to later recall the massacre of people from his own family’s tribe, the Wiyot, who once thrived in Northern California before being murdered in large numbers — mostly elders, women, and children — by a vigilante militia of white men in 1860.

Bartow received the skulls and consulted with Native American elders before performing healing rites with the help of a local Māori tribe and repatriating the remains back to the US. This incident deeply unsettled him and led him to paint the series “Nak May Kway Let Way (My Crying Eyes for You),” a memorial to the deceased Native Americans who belonged to the Arapaho, Flat Head, and Sioux peoples.

Installation view, Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain

Animals are recurring subjects in Bartow’s artworks. The birds and salmon in his paintings and wood carvings pay tribute to the wildlife of his native Oregon’s central coast, while coyotes, dogs, and bears — sometimes in partly human form — appear as fearsome beasts in the midst of metamorphosis. The ursine form of “Bear for Mary and John” stands upright and has human hands. Hunched forward with knees splayed, the man in “Frog Has Reason to Fear” seems to believe he’s a frog or is in the act of becoming one.

Animals in Bartow’s world may be tricksters, companions, guardians, or adversaries. They always seem to be in the act of becoming, but it’s not clear whether the outcome is joy or terror, hurt or healing. The menace and humor of Bartow’s art suggests that they can be all those things at once.

Rick Bartow, “Nak May Kway Let Way 6 (My Crying Eyes for You)” (1996), pastel, graphite on paper
Installation view, Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain
Installation view, Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain
Rick Bartow, “Frog Has Reason to Fear” (1999), pastel, graphite on paper
Rick Bartow, “CS Indian” (2014), pastel, tempera, graphite on paper

Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain continues at the Autry Museum (4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles) through January 6, 2019.

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