America the beautiful

A decade ago, Bo Bartlett was poised for superstardom in the art world. A year shy of 40, he was both emerging and established. His reputation was solid; he won a Pew Fellowship in the Arts that year and, in a catalog, no less a personage than Andrew Wyeth heaped praise on Bartlett.

"I’m a pretty critical old man," Wyeth wrote. "There are very few young American artists whose work I find exciting. One of them happens to be my son, Jamie. The other is Bo Bartlett. They’ve got it. It’s there. Keep a close watch on their future."

For Bartlett, the future is now. Late last year, he was chosen to paint the "American Soldier" as Man of the Year for Time Magazine. Just before that commission, his hometown art museum in Columbus, Ga., launched a major solo exhibition of his work. That exhibit toured nationally to Greenville, S.C.; Seattle, Wash.; and Santa Barbara, Calif., and now has just opened at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Bartlett is an alum.

"Heartland: Paintings and Drawings by Bo Bartlett, 1978-2002" runs through Nov. 14. The exhibit was conceived as a lead-in to next year’s American art extravaganza in celebration of the institution’s 200th birthday.

Bartlett found his way to Philadelphia through a varied learning career and was drawn to the city as the center of realist figurative painting, his chosen style. As practiced by Bartlett and some of his local teachers, most notably Sidney Goldman, the figurative realism is a highly detailed painting as seen through a colored filter and with more than a few overtones of surrealism. He also has studied with Ben Kamihira, Morris Blackburn and Nelson Shanks, the popular portrait artist.

Over the years, Bartlett has won any number of prestigious awards, including the Cresson Traveling Scholarship from the academy and the Pew Fellowship. His work is included in the private collections of Walter Annenberg, Richard Thornburgh, Fidelity Bank, the Pennsylvania Convention Center and La Salle University.

Bartlett was born in Georgia and, beginning at 19, studied privately in Florence, Boston and New York with noted realist teachers. He moved to Philadelphia in 1975 and studied at the University of the Arts and the academy. He took anatomy lessons at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, liberal arts at the University of Pennsylvania and filmmaking at New York University.

It was indirectly through filmmaking that Bartlett came in contact with the Wyeths. He was commissioned to do a documentary on Andrew Wyeth. Bartlett’s work, however, is not the realism of the Wyeths — father or son. Their work is portraiture, while the Bartlett style is stereotypical of its subject.

He himself describes his work as "an iconic American subject underlined with subtle open-ended questions." Thus, the subject matter by title could be as much Norman Rockwell as Andrew Wyeth. The execution by Bartlett, he says, "implies a chance for magic and wonder in everyday life."

The 40-plus works, many of them huge, provide a good view of the artist’s product and, at the same time, convey a vague feeling of having looked at one of those "America in cross-section snapshot" projects that pop up once in a while. Still, there are mysterious qualities about the work that make the viewer stop and search through the details of the painting to attempt to consolidate meaning.

Subject matter is not the focus of Bartlett’s intent. It is to depict America and Americans in such a manner that we are forced to look twice to see exactly who we are and in what we believe. Do we live by the code words, slogans and sayings that are often overused to describe American identity? Or do we merely pay lip service to even our most trusted and traditional values?

The final satisfaction with a Bartlett work is not so much getting the answers to the complex paradox that is America but rather in the engrossing visual images the artist creates to ask the questions.

As with most exhibitions of this size and scope, there are numerous accompanying programs, a handsome catalog and even a master class by Bartlett in mid-October.

Heartland: Paintings and Drawings by Bo Bartlett, 1978-2002
Through Nov. 14
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
118 N. Broad St.
Admission: adults, $5; seniors and students, $4; ages 5-18, $3; children under 5, free