Whatever else you call Morton Bartlett -- outsider artist, quirky amateur, proto-Postmodernist -- he was essentially a grown man who played with dolls. He constructed half-sized figures of children out of plaster, then painted, clothed, posed and photographed them. Bartlett (1909-92) described the enterprise as his hobby, its purpose "that of all proper hobbies -- to let out urges that do not find expression in other channels."
Since 1993, when an art and antiques dealer found a stash of Bartlett's black-and-white photographs and their carefully crafted models, the work has made the circuit as art in the self-taught vein: curious, obsessive, deeply interesting in the way it anticipates later, more self-conscious aesthetic currents.
Recently, another batch of images was found, this time in color, and 17 large prints made from the '50s-era Kodachrome slides are now on view at Rosamund Felsen along with a single plaster sculpture. The show presents a welcome occasion to survey this singular, compelling body of work, sentimental and ever so slightly suspect.
Bartlett was no Hans Bellmer, the Surrealist who created and photographed a highly eroticized female doll in the '30s. Bartlett did take care to make his dolls anatomically correct, but he rarely photographed them unclothed. Nevertheless, gender-bending aspects of his practice abound: Twelve of his 15 known figures represent young girls, and for all of them, he designed, knitted or sewed the costumes himself.
Bartlett was also no Henry Darger, however. He doesn't seem to have developed an elaborate (much less sexualized) narrative around his fictive creatures. His photographs show the dolls in a variety of postures and moods: striking a graceful ballet pose, reading a book, holding out a small bouquet of flowers. The images constitute a partial glossary of ordinary behaviors, most of them associated with childhood or young adulthood.
In one staged scenario of classic imaginative play, the figure of a young girl holds court with a scruffy pair of stuffed animals. In another photograph, a girl raises her somewhat clumsy plaster hand to her face, which is streaked with tea-colored tears. The expression Bartlett captures is a convincing blend of embarrassment, shame and fear.
Bartlett's subjects are immobile and inanimate, yet they possess the peculiar ability of human surrogates to convey emotional truth. By manipulating their interchangeable limbs and painting individualized facial features, Bartlett manages to generate an expressive cast of characters -- playful and pensive, coy, frisky and flirty.
The poses and expressions might serve as clues to the motivation behind this curious project, but Bartlett's work remains very much open to interpretation. There is certainly something fetishistic about his practice, but the same could be said of most artists with such single-minded devotion. The suggestion of prurience hangs over the work, but nothing in particular causes it to settle.
Bartlett was orphaned at age 8 and later adopted. The gap-toothed male figures he crafted have been determined to be portraits of himself at that seminal period of his life. Bartlett never married or had children, inviting the speculation that the family of characters he created was the one he wanted but never had.
His biography has more holes than solids. Based in Boston, he worked as a photographer for a time, as a manufacturer of gift items and the manager of a gas station, and finally in publishing and advertising. He largely kept his hobby private and never exhibited his work.
The photographs borrow from studio portraiture but sometimes hint of the snapshot in their faux immediacy. The edges of the colored backdrops he used can be seen in many of the prints -- not so, it seems, in the black-and-white work reproduced in an earlier catalog. The frisson between the illusionistic figures and the overt artificiality of the setup is intriguing, though it's impossible to know whether Bartlett sought such self-referentiality, simply didn't mind it or intended to crop the images to a state of seamlessness.
The incongruity heightens the appeal of the pictures and makes them tantalizingly resonant with staged photographs of the 1970s onward, especially those by Laurie Simmons and David Levinthal, featuring dolls and toys. There's even a touch of the film still in Bartlett's work that brings to mind the character studies of Cindy Sherman.
Bartlett achieved, intuitively, what has since become a schooled practice, the reconciliation of artifice and authenticity. His work feels oddly contemporary but also exemplary of the oldest variety of storytelling, entailing the creation of an alternate world or perhaps an idealization of the existing one.
Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through Dec. 22. Closed Sundays and Mondays. www.rosamundfelsen.com
-- Explicit works sure to raise eyebrows