Ray Bartkus’s Storylines at Drexel’s Pearlstein Gallery

An illustrator's art

It’s fortunate that Ray Bartkus uses artistic powers for good. To understand, take a look at his Selfportrait (2008).

A trompe-l'oeil self-portrait. (via www.raybartkus.com)

Three seemingly official passports are mounted on a white field: Soviet, Lithuanian, and American, each bearing a pencil sketch so fine that it appears to be a photograph of the illustrator and painter at different ages. Each forgery is detail-perfect, capturing a real passport’s stamped seals, patterned background paper, and computer-generated alpha-numeric border.

On Bartkus’s website, Identity Theft (2008) contains equally impressive images of a driver’s license, a Social Security card, and an American Express card. Then there’s the authentic currency Bartkus designed for his native Lithuania: the 50 litas bill, still in use. An official example hangs in the Pearlstein, near the remarkable forgeries.

Bureaucrats everywhere should rejoice that Bartkus chose art and not crime.

A prolific illustrator

Bartkus, 53, was born in Vilnius and emigrated to New York City in 1991 to test his talent against illustrators from across the world. His first break came at the New York Times, where his work has appeared consistently, as well as in other national and international publications, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Harper’s. It is an interesting body of work that unfortunately is not represented in Storylines, but can be sampled at his website.

The illustrations address political and economic themes, sometimes echoing the style of nationalistic posters seen during the height of communism and the cold war, something Bartkus would have experienced firsthand in Lithuania, a Soviet republic that declared independence in 1990. Though he and his family have resided in the United States for almost 25 years, Bartkus remains close to his roots, commenting in a 2012 interview that he considers himself a Lithuanian living in America, and speaks the language at home.

Bartkus’s imagery makes ample use of national flags. For the Times, he wrapped the state of Israel in a Union Jack (for a piece about Britain’s role in the formation of Israel, Palestine 2000) and fashioned an aircraft carrier and a picket fence from the Stars and Stripes (to illustrate an article debating American foreign involvement, Expansionism/Isolationism 2005).

Apocalyptic visions

Though Bartkus has said that his illustrations amplify, rather than simply repeat, editorial content, the art must relate to the text, which makes meaning easier to discern. The works in Storylines are naturally more cryptic, speaking only for themselves and their creator, without accompanying text.

Except Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (2015). The four-piece work contains lots of words, but has to be viewed at close range for them to be apparent. Four pieces of automobile glass hang side by side, two windshields and two triangular notch-windows, the kind that car thieves used to love. Metal framing and rubber gaskets are still attached, as though they’re freshly ripped from a wreck on the Schuylkill.

Almost black at the edges, backlighting creates a textured gray oval toward the center of each window. Moving closer, it becomes apparent that the gray texture is produced with layers of faint but legible print from newspapers, magazines, and websites. The content of each pane presents a different theme: pestilence, death, famine, and war.

Like his illustrations, Bartkus’s art frequently draws on world events and media. Really Bad News (2007), an ongoing web-based project, is a fake news site in which he manipulates media images to examine how outlets present news and information, and how it affects the message.

Up close and personal

Bartkus’s paintings, most of which are enormous and framed by the artist in real-world settings, such as a packing case or false wall, are rendered with photographic precision. A viewer gets a mosquito’s-eye view, in which eyelashes look like fringe on a shawl and fingerprint whorls look like a topographical map. You know what you’re seeing; you can see it from across the room. However, you might not know what to make of it.

Balance (2012) is a good example. Two five-foot square canvases hang suspended from the ceiling, about 30 feet apart, facing away from each other. They are connected at the corners by metal bars, forming a long box of air in the middle of the gallery. One canvas shows the top of Bartkus’s bald head, with just enough angle to spy his pale eyelashes, indicating open eyes. Its opposite reveals the creased and callused soles of his feet. It reminded me of a coffin. Signifying what? Then I got it, or at least a reasonable idea: Here lies a virtual shell of the artist in the midst of his canvases. Perhaps it signifies the way each of us winds up — a box of air, depending on our works for remembrance.

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