Love Letter to Rick Bartow

Rick Bartow, Dog Barking at Nothing at All, 2011. Acrylic on Panel. 16 x 12 inches. Courtesy of Rick Bartow.

Rick Bartow (1946–2016) was captivated with ideas of the self. Artists often reference themselves in their work, but Bartow continued this practice through unique symbolism. While some of his paintings are easily recognizable as Rick —like pastel drawings of him wearing his signature wire-framed glasses, holding a cigarette—more often, he is represented by creatures from the animal world, both real and imagined. 

His most powerful self portraits appear to have numerous layers. In the midst of chaotic brushstrokes and splatters, animal faces and hybrid bodies express a strained experience of the world. The results are grotesque, alarming, and extremely vulnerable. 

His sense of humor also appears, reminding viewers of his personal and stylistic complexity. For Bartow, art was therapeutic. By centering himself in his creations, he worked through and confronted the PTSD and alcoholism that resulted from his military service in the U.S.-Vietnam war. Through the use of animals and symbolism, he examines his role as a member of the Wiyot nation and the oppression of his people. 

What I love most about Bartow’s work is the way he makes me feel. I love the unexpected identities his paintings reveal and how they force me to look at myself. I have seen some of his paintings numerous times, and with each viewing, I see something new. I contemplate my own traumas and vulnerability, as well as how I go about expressing them. Bartow’s work is uncomfortable, and that’s exactly why I love it.