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Along with Henry Darger, Morton Bartlett is one of the most celebrated “Outsider Artists”. The Chamber of Pop Culture is very proud to present an exhibition of Bartlett’s photographs of his beautiful intricately-carved, life-like, plaster dolls made between 1926 – 1963 in an oversize print edition.
Born in Chicago in 1909, he was orphaned at the age of 8 and adopted by a wealthy couple from Cohasset, Massachusetts. Bartlett studied at Phillips Exeter Academy and later at Harvard University, after which he passed through a succession of jobs, ranging from crafts magazine editor to gas station attendant. Following his service in the US Army during WWII, Bartlett took up freelance graphic design and photography as well as designing catalogues for a toy distributor.
For 27 years Bartlett dedicated all his free time and resources to the creation of 15 beautifully crafted plaster children. Suspended in relaxed, photogenic poses or mid action, dancing, crying, translucent resin tears fixed on flushed cheeks, frozen in time, forever immersed in the intimacy, unselfconsciousness and wonder of childhood.
With no formal training, Bartlett used books on anatomy and medical growth charts to produce, first in clay and then cast in plaster, 12 girls and 3 boys ranging in age from pre-pubescence to adolescence. Their ageing and development occurring from one child to another, milk teeth missing in the wide open laughing mouth of a boy, in the next strong adult teeth behind the heavy, softly parted lips of girlhood, in another the nipples swell, hips broaden, all grown-up now.
Bartlett dressed these wondrous children in picket-fence, Sears catalogue inspired hand made fashions: Smocking, pleats, embroidery, ruffles, bobby socks and sun hats. Concealed beneath the lovingly made clothing lie perfect anatomies, a closeness, a spectral presence tangible in Bartlett’s photographs within which he posed these children in carefully considered scenarios echoing advertising, fashion magazines and Hollywood portrait photography.
And yet, despite the remarkable detail and heart breaking care these children remain unreal, at odds with the physical forces of this world. Stunted, caught perpetually in a single expression and position, they are brittle to the elements and vulnerable to time, unable to live outside in streets and stations.
But in the photographs time stops and the inanimate children come to life, in a fixed world built for them, their stillness erased by the stillness of time. Photography here is the alchemical process, the enigmatic invocation which animates them and makes them “real” boys and girls.