Object Permanence

1986
Oil on Linen
120 x 168

Bartlett’s childhood home appears in many of his works, and here it serves as the backdrop to a fascinating family portrait. A father, mother and three children are scattered throughout the composition, each framed by the structure of the house but isolated from each other.  The father figure is the artist’s self-portrait as an African American. The pregnant mother holds a bundle, which is semi-transparent, symbolizing the child not yet born.  A boy in the front of the composition holds a Moon Pie, the Southern delicacy that Bartlett himself had in his hand when, as a child, he fell into the family pool and learned to swim.  Another boy stands inside at the front window and shouts, but no one hears him.  The youngest child plays with bubbles, a classic symbol for the impermanence of life.

For the artist, the elements of the painting relate to idea of object permanence, which is the comprehension that objects are real even when they cannot be seen, heard, touched, or smelled, an understanding that babies have not yet developed: 

A child who doesn’t see his mother, who has perhaps walked out of the room, thinks he will never see her again and starts crying.  If the object is not right there in front of you, it’s gone.  So I tried to paint my house.  A child is asked to draw his family in school—the most basic thing they ask kids to do is to draw their world…their family.  So I was doing sort of a grown-up version of that: the simplest possible request to represent what your life is.