This is a preview of our feature on Sterling Bartlett in Issue 17, out May 11.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen a steady influx of tie-dye enter the pop culture landscape. What was once the attire of acid casualties staring at the sun on Venice beach, or your boomer uncle or aunt at the family function telling stories about “their SF-in-the-60s” has now become a pretty accepted part of our American fabric. Hell, we might as well replace the stars and stripes with a tie-dyed flag at this point. From Dries Van Noten’s recent collection to its slow creep into the art world, tie-dye’s resurgence seems to have hit mass acceptance. Sterling Bartlett is out on the frontlines doing his part to keep the American counter culture tradition alive. To ask an obvious question, how did this body of work come about?
Well, I suffer from the same Hockney/Babitz syndrome that a lot of artists and writers do. We look around at Los Angeles, and we lose our shit over the landscape, the good tacos, the beach, and we have to make our art about it somehow. For me, that began with a sort of formalist idea about painting my neighborhood, agave plants, palm trees, etc. While these paintings do a great job of illustrating a physical place, I feel like adding the dye elements helped to better embody the nebulous mood of Southern California. Like walking the dog hungover in the morning sun, weed smoke billowing out of the window of a passing car, or the background noise of a police helicopter circling overhead.
I’ve noticed the new work begin to bleed into your world of handcrafted, handmade limited items. From the apparel tie-dye process, ceramics, home goods, and now large scale paintings, I feel like you’ve really found your voice and I can’t wait to see this evolve. Are you planning on merging all of these crafts and skills into installation-based works, or evolve into more of a brand? They all mesh together so perfectly, I’m curious as to where it will all go.
I’ve always looked to artists like Peter Shire or Ken Price as inspiration for this model of artistic output: paying no heed to the fickle, mobile goal post of what is/isn’t fine art. If either one would have compartmentalized their lanes of creativity the world would be light several thousand beautiful teapots and coffee mugs. It’s in this vein that I simply release everything I make under my own name, and kinda scatter it to the winds.Of all the materials and studio practices, which is the most enjoyable for you as an artist to experiment with?
I find that anything involving craft is the most fulfilling for me. Painting and dying are both enjoyable tactile experiences. My recent experiments with Suminagashi techniques on pottery have been really fun too.
What’s your thought on the current trend of rappers and actors wearing tie-dye for fashion? The other day I saw a photo of DMX wearing a tie-dye Def Leppard shirt and have never been so confused and excited by so much culture clash.
Hahaha. I think it’s rad! Apparel-wise we’re living in a pretty fun time. I spent years basically wearing an invisibility cloak: thick glasses, simple button up, and dark jeans because I was uncomfortable broadcasting my tastes too much or was afraid to be perceived as garnish. Now though, I’m deep into exploring the weirdness. I love seeing somebody just swarming with different symbols and opposing sartorial choices. Plus, it offers up a kind of gamified dissection of someone’s fit, like: “Wait… That’s DMX w’ a Def Leppard tee? (Already wild/funny.) Then on top of that, it’s fucking tie-dyed?!” Whoa.Do you plan on exhibiting this new body of work anywhere?
That ends up being the million dollar question. I’m always game to show work that I’m proud of, but the setting and context are so crucial. If the right partnership came along I’d be open to discussion, but in the meantime, I’m not gallery focused. I’m just going to keep working with my collectors one-on-one.
It seems like a lot of us are gravitating away from the gallery system and returning to a client/collector based relationship. It’s brutal out there if you’re not a recent MFA grad from a prestigious institution or have family connections.
I’ve had a long arc working with (or around) galleries. I even lived in an artist collective/gallery after college many years ago, which gave me an invaluable early education—I jokingly refer to it as grad school. At present, I don’t even dislike the system necessarily, but I remain cautious of emails about “summer group shows”.
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