Interview with Richard Bartle on “Stepping Stones”, Collect Gallery

Zeynep Nur Ayanoğlu – Abdullah Ezik

Zeynep Nur Ayanoğlu and Abdullah Ezik interview with Richard Bartle about his solo exhibition titled “Stepping Stones” opened at the Collect Gallery recently, the way he used the art of miniature in his productions and how Istanbul was a source of inspiration for him.

Zeynep Nur Ayanoğlu: Thanks a lot for sparing time for this interview. Can we begin by getting to know your worldview and life philosophy from an aspect that fuels your artistic production?

I’ve always been a bit of an adventurer and, I might add, had a few close scrapes with death over the years! Running up mountains, scuba diving, wandering into dangerous places – have all conspired to create in me a sense of wonder about the world and a desire to live life to the full. Through art, this life has become about decoding the amazing beauty, contrast, and curiosity around the things I encounter. Giving something back to the world, something interesting, joyous, and perhaps even healing, is why I make art.

Z.N.A.: As an English artist based in Kadikoy, how is your perception of landscape shaped compared to your hometown, Yorkshire (was it Yorkshire)? Are there commonalities and divergences between the two neighborhoods especially in terms of scenery?

The contrast could not be more different. Yorkshire, and my home city of Sheffield, is a green and hilly place, full of trees and parks – It’s easy to find nature there and moments of peace are the normal. However, the hills of Istanbul feel so familiar and navigating, finding nature, or looking for a broader view of the world, inspire my wanderings here.

It’s worth mentioning too, that the sea has always played a big part in my life, even though Sheffield is in the middle of Britain and far away from the coast – here in Istanbul, especially Kadikoy, I get to live with the sea in my life every day, which also inspires so much of what I make.

Z.N.A.: In your speech, you referred to the problem of demarcation which was interesting for me to hear because it is a major philosophical problem I myself often dwell on in my daily life. Can you explain how this conception relates to your work, or the understanding behind your works?

Demarcation for me, and more specifically my work, is something that mostly relates to the method of production. Just as life often feels quite compartmentalised, often the processes I use become broken down into distinct ways of working. As with the rock paintings, this became about recording, preparing the flat black surface, projecting and outlining, filling in the texture with modelling paste, and then finally representing the colour and character of the rocks using various mark making techniques. Similarly, with the larger miniaturist works, these processes were applied to individual moments as I tried to form the pictorial.

Z.N.A.: My last question is about your artistic circle in Istanbul. Do you closely follow Turkish artistic production? Which artists are you friends with, for example, or are there artists whose exhibitions you pay attention not to miss out on?

I pay attention as much as I can and follow the artists that inspire me as much as possible. It’s hard to pin them all down, but I was always inspired by Gulsun Karamustafa, Canan, Fikret Atay, and the amazing artists from the Hafriyat art group, who became my good friends. But I admit I miss so many great events here – partly because I travel a lot and must spend winter and mid-summer in the UK, but also because, just like I am there, I tend to be quite reclusive as an artist, and spend most of my time making my work, but especially when I’m here.

Abdullah Ezik: Miniature, which is a Turkish-Islamic art, has an important place in your works. How did you meet with miniature art?

I first really experienced the miniature art of the Ottoman and Persian dynasties at The Royal academy in London in 2005. At the time, Mehmet Siyah Kalem was the most inspiring and from this I began a series of projects that lasted 13 years and resulted in several museum and artists initiative exhibitions, both here and in the UK. However, from this encounter also grew a greater knowledge and respect of the other, more traditional, miniaturists work. So, when I was looking for a method of working that had a more pictorial form, the miniaturist’s way of representing the world and its stories seemed like a logical choice.

A.E.: Another important point in your artworks is Istanbul. As an English artist, is there a special reason that draws you to Istanbul? What are the main reasons that place Istanbul in such an important position in your artworks?

I was drawn here initially by a chance encounter whilst on holiday in Datca. My second visit was to Istanbul and, from the first moment I stepped out of the plane, I knew there was something inspiring and special about this place. I guess, if you want me to pin it down, it has something to do with the texture of the city, its literal surfaces, or its jumble of history and architecture! But also, I was always inspired by how the people of the city interacted with the space – Whether that’s the graffiti that seems like a running commentary on the politics here, or the way even the most local of local people never can resist a selfie of themselves with the city behind them. I guess, the changing city, the constant changing light, the fluidity of it all, remain a constant inspiration – even the ugliness has its own aesthetic here.

A.E.: Your works exhibited in the Collect Gallery basically consist of three series paintings. As an artist, what is the difference between producing a series of works and producing individual works? With what thoughts did you produce these series?

Yes, they are series. Working like this has always been as much about constantly refreshing my perspective of the world, as it is about feeding my inventive spirit. That said, at the root of everything that I make, since I first decided I wanted to make art my life, is a sort of process off assemblage and simulation. My works are always inspired by a bringing disparate elements together, or a decoding process, from which grow new process that somehow re-present the world I encounter. Whether that’s as simple as a surface or as complicated as a story that belongs to a place.

A.E.: The streets of Istanbul; the chaos in the streets, the profligacy, colours, and liveliness are a matter that we clearly feel in your works. How did the streets, more specifically the streets of Istanbul, feed you in your productions? As an artist, can we say that Bartle is intertwined with the streets, with all the things we feel his presence and vitality in our world?

I would hope people felt this from my work, but I would be a charlatan if I claimed to somehow know much more than the physicality and materiality or the things I find and represent. I am after all a visitor, an outsider looking in. However, my works try to exist on the thin line between the objective and subjective, drifting in and out of both, and as such, place themselves as personal interpretations of the things folks often miss when they are ingrained in the world they occupy. That said, I feel at home here and I listen and observe so, despite my protestations of “otherness”, I am aware that I have become more aware of the city and its narrative, and as such, more a part of it. I hope this is reflected in what I make.

A.E.: The landscapes you encounter while running along the man-made rocky coast of Kadıköy are one of your main sources of inspiration. It is possible to see this situation in many of your paintings. How did these man-made rocky coasts take shape as they turned into man-made paintings? What is the place of the miniature in this form?

In so many of the old miniaturists works, the representation of the surfaces of nature became the liberating point for them as artists. Miniature paintings, particularly the Islamic art of the Ottoman period, use strict guidelines set out by the faith about the representation of nature, however, when painting rocks, trees, and the landscape, the artists were free to make marks that in other cultures would be termed as abstract.

The rock paintings use this liberated mark making process to represent the real, and to talk about the physical and actual surface I was running across when I was training for the marathon. The work itself though was inspired by a similar project I made on the Cornish coast in the UK, and the semi-autobiographical book by Haruki Murakami “What I talk about when I talk about running”, which dissects the authors thought processes as he runs, and how this feed his work. 

A.E.: How do you combine your personal journey with the collective past, present, and future of the city?

The questions, who am I? why am here? who was here before me? feed my thought structure and my every encounter here. I always talk about the idea of scratching the earth with your foot and the past coming up. Here one is immersed in history and stories and learning from these feeds into my work all the time. As for the future… this Istanbul, its life story is one of gradual and radical change, who knows even if the water will be on tomorrow!

A.E.: Mehmet Siyah Kalem, a great master of miniature art, is a name that you especially point out and emphasize. What would you say about special names and Siyah Kalem that influenced you during your art?

Just like everyone who first meets Siyah Kalem, it was the imaginative process that first inspired me, especially his demon paintings. However, once I was in Istanbul, on my first residency here at Platform Garanti in 2008, I began noticing how so many of the characters in Siyah Kalem’s other, more socially observational works, were still present in the people and situations of contemporary Istanbul. From that point Siyah Kalem became a mirror through which I attempted to understand the world around me and, given the textural nature of his work, the surfaces of the city itself.

A.E.: Finally, you said that you have other works that you have produced based on Mehmet Siyah Kalem. Will we be able to see both these works and your other productions in Istanbul in the near future?

I hope so. Siyah Kalem is a tricky character here; his works belong within something mythological and historical, however, outside the structure of art they belong firmly in the identity of so many people. My works attempted to bridge that divide but getting an institution here to see it this way is a difficult task. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s about the elevation of the mundane through the curiosity of my own perspective. Its worth noting that when I showed my massive “Nomadic Tales” installation at Museums Sheffield, the audience was 26,000 people, with many returning time and time again – To them the work spoke of a culture they had rarely encountered, and I know many came to Turkey as I direct result of that introduction.