Mass media in any of its forms flattens the meaning of the visual imagery it presents. This was true fifty years ago when direct reporting from the Vietnam War- the first television war – was interspersed with crisply produced commercials for soap and automobiles; it is just as true of today’s social media platforms, where anything can be made visible but nothing is able to assume enduring significance. It may be that our society consumes more disposable imagery than ever before but there is nothing new about the way that mass circulation platforms determine the values of our visual culture.
Anthony Bartok is part of a long lineage of artists who have dipped their hand into the incessant stream of ephemeral, media images and appropriated them to a critique of the conditions of our social existence, of how our norms and behaviours are manipulated for base commercial imperatives. I can’t think of anybody working today with drawing, painting and print media who does it better. His selection of source images, guided by a sure feeling for contradiction, exposes the deep strangeness of what the multitude are scrolling through daily. He is one of those rare artists whose work can elicit full-blown laughter, as the profane is set alongside the ridiculous to produce a riotously apt critique of modern life. In one memorable past work inflatable ‘tube men’ were shown rising and deflating in front of a field of fornicating figures, with a nameless male figure floating in indeterminate space, dressed for business; in the present body of work a young man and woman on a reality television show perform a full-mouth kiss for the camera, attended from all sides by a scattering of tiny, hard-hatted construction workers who are just as intent on executing their work.
A talented drawer with a strong capacity for visual invention, Bartok ponders the compositional construction of each work at length and insists on hand-drafting everything. His clean line doesn’t give much away and we might find comedy in the effort he makes to avoid any expressive flourish, but his line has a serious job to do: de-familiarising us from subjects usually rendered in photographic colour and consolidating the image in a newly essentialised form. If we give our attention to Bartok’s work we will find a sensitivity and interpretative dimension to his drawing that sets it well apart from its source images, producing shifts of emphasis that only a human eye and mind would arrive at or find significant.
The emphasis is not always on humour. Increasingly, Bartok concerns himself with the inherently mysterious nature of our transit through life. In the current exhibition it is the presence of animals in our constructed, socialised environments that changes the tone. A domestic cat strides across a suburban panorama as a free agent; Queen Elizabeth 2 extends the hand of royal greeting to an elephant. In both cases the human-ordained pecking order of the species appears to be precarious, as though a wildness that has long been suppressed could be about to assert itself. Perhaps the animals are a reminder that we, the humans, also possess a potential to step outside of the boundary lines.
I am never in doubt with Anthony Bartok that the picture of life I am being shown has been made with consciousness of the moral implications of aesthetic decisions. If his work implies that there is a bad guy we find him primarily in the massive conglomerates that trade in false, exploitative images but also in our own frailty as consumers and creators of such material. In my mind’s eye I see Bartok in front of the television with his head in his hands, uttering the words: how did it come to this? But the care that he takes in crafting his visual critiques and his openness to the possibility of an art that acknowledges ambiguity and mystery is itself a welcome assertion of what is worth fighting for in this world. Written by Joe Frost
Anthony Bartok is a Sydney based painter and print maker whose work is a wryly humorous comment on modern society.
He is a 2022 MFA graduate of the National Art School and has been a finalist in among others: The Waverly Art Prize (2022), The Grace Cossington Smith Art Prize (2021), The Lester Prize for Portraiture (2020), The Kilgour Art Prize (2019) and Winner of the Fisher’s Ghost Award for Drawing, Painting and Printmaking (2016).