Challenging Beauty: The Sculpture of Tom Bartel

It has been argued that people react more positively to representational art because it leads them down a road that is more comfortable or familiar to them. What happens when that road of comfort becomes twisted, confused and all together abstract? Hopefully, the viewer, while being subverted, will find themselves in an area that is perhaps new and exciting, or at least thought provoking.

“Challenging” is an easy way to describe Bartel’s work, which explores and proffers his interpretation of human beauty. There are many interpretations of the meaning of human beauty. To many, it is the young female model posing on the pages of a fashion magazine. To others, it is the colors of a sunset reflected in the face of the one they’ve been married to for 40 years. Bartel, while using the human form as representational subject matter, manipulates it to explore topics like time, birth, aging, sexuality, beauty and our attitudes toward them. The work is by no means easily digested. The characters Bartel creates are reminiscent of many horror movies made popular by Hollywood and, at the same time, remind viewers of people they know.

The strength of Bartel’s work lies in its ability to straddle the line between humor, religious and historical imagery, and the familiar. His sculptures depict vulnerable human forms that are often changed by outside influences.

“My work is consistently being interpreted as disturbing (and humorous) to many viewers,” Bartel explains. “This theme is not a conscious pursuit of mine, rather it is simply an outcome that I see over and over . . . and evidently something that is important to me.”

In his piece, “Figure with Diaper and Glasses,” Bartel and his approach come through clearly. The piece, which is a baby-sized figure in a diaper with an older persons head and Buddy Holly-style glasses, has a doll-like quality. However, unlike a doll it holds an expression that is decidedly human, as if to say, “What the heck happened to me?” There is an arm and foot missing, and the arm that does exist looks as if it has been torn off and put back on poorly. The diaper appears to be almost one with the figure, as if it were knitted on. One could say this doll had a rough day, but this piece is far too human for that, and further inspection will only remind the onlooker of someone injured or disfigured in some way.

“My doll pieces are intended to reference toys, but also to blur the line between doll and human,” Bartel states. “Dolls are potent objects. I believe all objects have inherent power, which artists may choose to use or abuse. I enjoy the ambiguity, generalization and confusion sometimes found in my work, as well as the contradictory messages they are capable of sending.”

Bartel talks a lot about the “subtle influences of time” when he describes his own aesthetic. It is hard to see anything subtle about the work. What is perhaps most off putting is the use of the doll and the older looking decrepit human form. A person must imagine the life of that doll and all that can happen over a lifetime. Was the doll born like that, or did all of the damage happen in an accident, or over time? Did the doll have children? Is this thing in pain?

While contemplating the meaning of Bartel’s art, one must note the importance he places on his choice of material. “I’m not an artist who happens to teach clay. I am an artist who works in clay, and I am very proud of that. . . . One thing I really love about ceramics is that it is so well grounded in the ancient past-our past,” he says. “I work intuitively, following the lead of the material. I am merely the conduit between the material and my ideas. I make a lot of work. As a student, I was exposed to the importance of being prolific. Really, there is no other way to grow. I see it in my students every semester; the give and take dynamics of the academic studio environment I’m sure also is a factor. Allowing myself to be influenced by everything and anything-being observant and persistent-is important. Our job as visual artists is to ‘funnel’ everything we find interesting and important, and to ‘sieve’ that which doesn’t help us, no matter the source. Taking risks is important.

“Sometimes, I intend to generalize or even edit parts of the body. Often this is achieved simply by paying attention to the material, and having a sense of economy and sensitivity in the process. What’s absent is as important as what’s present. Stephen DeStaebler said something to this affect: ‘I find that there is a greater sense of wholeness when the whole is not there.’ In poetry, it’s often the spaces or gaps between the words that are most powerful.”

Perhaps that is what is most important about Bartel’s work. He leaves questions and wonderment, as opposed to direct answers, in the pieces he makes. Through his exploration of sexual identity, aging, time and because of the vulnerability a little fear can bring, Tom Bartel is making thought-provoking and interesting work.

More images of works by Tom Bartel can be seen online at

The author Anderson Turner is a ceramic artist in Garrettsville, Ohio.

See a video interview with ceramic sculptor Tom Bartel
in the
Ceramic Arts Daily Video Archives


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