Dark Forms at the Canton Museum of Art
Nothing speaks of mystery with more sibilance than an ancient tomb, where half-seen shapes whisper to the unconscious mind. Ohio University professor Tom Bartel’s most recent ceramic works, glazed with metallic oxides and high kiln temperatures to a cindery brownish-black, mean to evoke just that response.
Installed in a small room to one side of a large gallery at the Canton Museum of Art, Bartel’s stylized sculptures evoke body parts, each less than a foot long. A heart, a hand, a nipple, a foot, and an egg form a neat row in the middle of the floor — uncanny and at the same time grimly matter-of-fact, like a crime scene. Dim lighting produces a shrine-like effect in the shallow room, and the overall darkness of the space is apt to keep viewers lingering nervously at the entrance. Against the back wall a relatively well-illuminated, jar-like, mummy shaped object about four feet tall stands erect. No marks or lines, features or colors disturb the formal, cindery, meteoric purity of any of these six works.
Tom Bartel studied in the 1980s at KSU with Ohio’s ceramics power couple Kirk Mangus and Eva Kwong, receiving his BFA from Kent and later earning an MFA from Indiana University. He has long experimented with richly cracked and rumpled glazes, applied to a variety of unsettling bodies and appendages. Fetish and ritual have been typical themes in his work over the past two or three decades, reflecting the artist’s interest in the interrelated histories of art and religion, and perhaps as phases in a more personal search for emergent psychic wholeness. The darkness inherent in Bartel’s vision has often been very striking, but it does go with that territory. Juxtapositions of infancy with advanced age, physical decay, and deformity (missing arms, for instance) have characterized some of Bartel’s earlier explorations. But at “Dark Forms” the only suggestion of mutilation is the implied amputation or surgical removal of the body parts on the floor. That, and one of the more popular (in ancient Egypt) stories about the gods Osiris, Set, and Isis, which Bartel’s scenario brings to mind. The myth, which grew and changed over the long millennia of the Pharaohs’ Old and New Kingdoms, told the story of the death, dismemberment and rebirth of a proto-typical dying and resurrected god/king (for a scholarly ten volume treatment of this complex subject, read Sir James George Frazer’s Victorian classic The Golden Bough). In late versions, it also became a national unity parable, telling how forty-two pieces of Osiris’s body were scattered through the forty-two provinces of Egypt.
But that was then, and this is now. On close examination Bartel’s body parts look less archaeological, more Hollywood. They could almost be toasted articles of cartoon apparel from an ancient Disney animated short – maybe even “Steamboat Willie.” That Ur feature of Disney’s art introduced Mickey to America in 1928, along with his famous four-fingered gloves, one of which seems to have found its way onto the floor at CMA. Another MM characteristic item of apparel was the round-toed, ankle-high boot, and just as the “hand” here is really a glove, so the “foot” is clearly a boot, or a caricature of one, similar to Mickey’s boots in that same landmark cartoon. The “heart”, the “nipple” and the “egg,” however, belong to another narrative.
“Dark Forms’ represents a dramatic change in Bartel’s work, which he attributes to life changes he’s experienced. In a statement he writes, “I am obsessed with and observant of how time is and am intrigued by the many ways in which we are affected by its passage. This is all the more poignant after recently becoming a parent and as I observe myself and those around me age.” Bartel deliberately mixes the childhood associations embodied in the glove and boot, with shapes symbolic of nourishment and ultimate origins. It’s as if the mummy against the wall has disclosed or revealed these five forms, unfolding them from its own immemorial cocoon, dealing them out as markers for a new/old life.
Dark Forms by Tom Bartel is on view through October 29, 2017 at Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. North, Canton, OH. For admission prices and hours call 330 453-7666 or visit online: cantonart.org