Native American Artist Rick Bartow Took the Trauma of War and Turned It into Art

The deceased Vietnam War vet fuses personal history and cultural heritage in a retrospective at the Autry Museum

Rick Bartow is a contemporary artist who also happens to be of Native American heritage. But his work may challenge your preconceptions of “Native American art.”

The works displayed at the Autry museum in Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain incorporate some imagery and concepts from the traditions he grew up with in the Pacific Northwest, amongst the Mad River Band of the Wiyot Tribe. At the same time, they appear in his own style, which might be compared to contemporary artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat or Marc Chagall.

Before Bartow’s death in 2016, he was commissioned to create a large-scale outdoor sculpture for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indiana pair of 27-foot towers carved from 500-year-old wood, which now stand facing dramatically out onto the National Mall.

He displayed his work in smaller gallery shows and several American museums feature him in their collections, but this show, which originated at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Oregon, is the first significant retrospective of his work ever assembled.

That might be, at least in part, because many Native American artists have struggled to break through in a mainstream culture that has often treated their creations as something more at home in museums of anthropology than galleries of modern art.

“Deer Spirit” by Rick Bartow

Image courtesy Autry Museum of the American West

Bartow struggled in his personal life, as well. He attended college to become an art teacher, though he had no other formal art education. Then, in 1969, was drafted to serve in the Vietnam war.

He survived his years of service, and was awarded a Bronze Star, but was scarred by the experience. By the time he returned home, he was afflicted with what we now understand to be PTSD. Bartow spiraled into alcohol and drug use.

“I had buried a lot of monsters with alcoholism and drug abuse, and when they started getting out of the box, I lost the lid and couldn’t put it back,” Bartow told Cultural Survival magazine in 2007.

As a way to cope, he finally turned back to art. He started with simple graphite drawings on paper and, over time, worked up to painting and sculpture. Bartow incorporated his own monsters into the work, and spent the next 30 years creating personal, urgent pieces, often featuring ghostly and unsettling images.

To learn more about this important exhibition, we spoke with Amy Scott, chief curator and Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross Curator of Visual Arts at the Autry Museum.

Can you tell us a little about Rick Bartow’s journey that eventually resulted in him turning to art?

I’ve not actually read any accounts of his experience abroad [fighting in the Vietnam War] but he did suffer from PTSD and “survivor’s guilt.”

PTSD wasn’t recognized as a disorder until the 1980s, so he would have had no outlet for treatment, and he used alcohol to self-medicate. He got sober in 1979, and his art really took off from there.

But PTSD, Vietnam, and whatever demons that produced, remain present in ghostly forms, mangled-looking bodies and faces. In the sculpture there is a sense of violent assault or something gruesome; nails hammered into them, metal staples visible, etc. These works are some of his most powerful. 

“Bear Medicine” by Rick Bartow

Image courtesy of Autry Museum of the American West

How does his work express the themes of colonization, history, and culture?

Colonization is referenced, I think, in the level of silent torment seen throughout: open mouths, anguished screams, the tension resulting from images of Indians that are neither traditional-looking nor classically beautiful.

History is seen in references to historical artists and authors including Van Gogh, Shakespeare, Melville, each of whom dealt with exoticism or being ostracized in their own lives and work. Its also seen in the “10 Little Indians” work, which revives historical photographs by Edward Curtis by returning individuality, dignity, attitude, and thus agency, to them.

Culture can be seen in the multitude of animal figures and people shape-shifting back and forth between one another, an idea common in Native Northwest Coast cultures, and which would have been visible where Bartow lived. The idea that you can’t separate the physical and the spiritual, that animals and people share an interdependency and familial ties. 

Why do you think we do not see as many contemporary Native artists breaking through with mainstream recognition?

I suspect it has to do with outdated ideas about what constitutes “Native” art and the continued use of that label. We should simply look at Bartow, his contemporaries, and the younger generation as contemporary artists who happen to be Native. It certainly informs their work, but it no longer defines it. Once we recognize that, mainstream attention will follow. 

Who are some of those other contemporary artists of Native heritage you suggest readers seek out after seeing this show?

While Bartow’s work evokes a number of major post-modern artists such as Francis Bacon and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the more interesting conversation is perhaps between his colleagues, artists such as Fritz Scholder and Darren Vigil Gray, both of whom created work that refers to the existential crisis many Native people saw in their late 20th century existence, in which they were supposed to be viewed mainly as history, and not of interest in their present reality. 

Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain is on view at the Autry Museum of the American West from May 12, 2018 to January 6, 2019.

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