If you haven't already seen Bo Bartlett's paintings at the Ogden Museum, by all means go. Even if you remain skeptical, as I did, it's a show worth seeing simply on its merits as a visual spectacle. Bartlett's vivid canvases are larger than life in almost every way. An occasional filmmaker who once produced a documentary about his mentor, Andrew Wyeth, he might also owe a debt to Cecil B. DeMille. Entering the Ogden's fifth floor gallery is like going to a multiplex theater where dramatic, if stationary, narratives cover theater-size expanses of wall space. As with DeMille, not everything is convincing, but his dramatic flair is never in doubt.
Born in Georgia in 1955, Bartlett is a product of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art and the Pennsylvania visual arts tradition in general, a largely realist legacy that harks to the epic 18th century history paintings of Benjamin West as well as the folksier Wyeth and varieties of magical realism. Elements of all three appear here. Some works from the 1980s suggest soft-focus Wyeth, but in his later canvases, the light gets colder and more dramatic, etching down-home hunting and fishing scenes in the portentous luminosity of the Northern renaissance. But Bartlett waxes mythic in works like Leviathan (pictured), a beach scene in which two men slice open a whale to reveal a recumbent figure reminiscent of a Calvin Klein ad as two children look on. Rendered in muted tones under a Nordic sky, this actually sort of works. But Civil War is way over the top, a vast hallucinatory tableau with a zoned-out Southern belle holding a dying black man in a renaissance-martyr pose in front of a copiously melting snowdrift. The figures suggest Hollywood Central Casting while the landscape suggests an Icelandic geological survey, and it's all so zany it makes Salvador Dali look like a social realist. Yet even here, Bartlett gives us something weirdly remarkable to gawk at, such is his facility with the dramatic power of paint. — D. Eric Bookhardt
Bo Bartlett: Paintings 1984-2000
Ogden Museum of Southern Art, 925 Camp St., 539-9600; www.ogdenmuseum.org