The Drawers - Aleks Bartosik in Spunky Rooms Essay by James D. Campbell

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Dark Karma:

Uncensored Thoughts on the Art of Aleks Bartosik

 Picture this: Outsider artist Henry Darger prone on the gurney -- stripped, prepped and in constraints, waiting for a sex change op with no anaesthetic in sight, surrounded by his endearing Vivian girl heroines who are all holding steel tongs, trephines and Liston knives hidden behind their backs. This image comes effortlessly to mind when reflecting upon the work of Aleks Bartosik, for she does imaginative violence to Darger’s demented, misogynistic phantasia as a gifted feminist artist unafraid of exploring her own dark side. She reclaims something of his territory as being ineluctably her own.

She shaves his work of what has been called its obsessively phallocentric taxonomy and turns it on its head. No erect penises grafted onto young girls here. You might say she harrows up his soul from the nether regions where it has languished these last many years, draws and quarters it -- and makes it unapologetically her own, Kali-like. I do not mean to suggest that there is anything like stylistic affiliation at work here aside from a similarly put-upon, at-high-risk repertoire of painting subjects, but only that Bartosik shares with Darger in a welter of fever-dream-like imagery what has been called a “near hallucinatory intensity”. (1)

In any case, her visionary work has an inflammatory aura, an unsettling, potentially wound-like resonance. The mercury here often rises to near- boiling point. Once she gets the hooks in, you’re hers. She particularizes with weird acumen those extreme fugue states of identity and desire that vex us in the life-world and puts paint to them – and with beguiling virtuosity for an artist with only a bare decade of work behind her. In fact, all her work to date has been rife with telling psychological as well as oft-demonic, almost inassimilable sociological tropes. Like those of fellow painters Eliza Griffiths (mutable gender/identities) and Marion Wagschal (potent duende generators), her figures are triumphant painting events as well as psychic integers of chiasm and dark karma. Bartosik now joins their ranks as a feminist figurative painter exploring issues of gender and identity and psychological adversity in topical, intrepid and unforeseen ways.

Here is a visual artist capable of inordinately deft mark-making routines – and a breathtaking delicacy in her rendering of the figure even when associated imagery is at its most dramatically wayward and extreme. However fraught with figures in extremis her work is, she knows what she is about. And it shows. She renders flesh jackets as angst-ridden playgrounds, and auratic red watercolor wash less as pancake makeup than spilled amniotic fluid or lifeblood -- and she does so with a casual authority few others have or can.

She works her drawn figures into a state of uncanny, even vibratory self-presence, grafting animal parts onto human parts and vice versa with radiant vestigial crossovers until just the right threshold of psychic density has been reached. One might suggest that she is a creature of perfect control – or one all too willing to put herself in harm’s way with no safety net in sight for the sake of her art. Hers’ is a no-holds-barred exploration of a twilit psychological space as harrowing as it is authentic.

The truth is that Bartosik the artist and presumably the person is entirely unafraid. She recognizes fear as being the true mindfucker and resists it at every turn. Her works are at once subversive and provocative, celebrating rupture over continuity and continuity over rupture, as a means of ownership, avowal and perhaps overcoming. Her female figures are rendered with rare skill in open arenas of suffering and transformation – and with a consummately theatrical, take-no-prisoners bravado. But their rendering also possesses an aching, even heartbreaking, subtlety that betrays the sheer sophistication of this artist’s understanding of human psychology and the need for excess as a way of working-through the perils of the present tense.

Her corpus represents her own unique take on Eden’s nightside and its in!. While she detonates conventional narrative structure with all the delirium of a single heartfelt image wrested from the mind’s eye and sent full-tilt over the edge of every orthodoxy and every expectation, we still infer from her painting content that it is always told in the first person  -- I mean, that Aleks Bartosik herself is the subject, the sole agent provocateur of her own wildly adumbrated reality, her Artaud-like cruelty theatre of the Real. With a repertoire that ranges freely from wall-drawings and performances to costume and painting, Bartosik demonstrates that her own personae are strongly inscribed across all these surfaces and spaces with what is frequently a karmic, unstoppable and almost demented Kali-like fury.

But it should be emphasized that her embodied Me always rests on the solid fundament of an empathic We. No mute solipsist, she. Bartosik never turns away from or denies the world, but embraces it – and its extremities -- at all costs and whatever the consequences. Her work investigates both self and other and their several interactive morphologies at the closest of quarters.

If her pictorial accomplishments apropos this human equation are profoundly multiple, well, it is probably because her painting world intermixes vulnerability and a lucid childlike innocence with disruptions characterized by an extreme violence and portents of a polymorphous perversity. There is also a salutary ambiguity always already at work there, even in the face of such disruptive web-like tremors, a smudging of possible selves across the full gamut of the human. But governing all that is what one concludes is a hard-won self-awareness, a well-nigh omniscient clarity that reads as virtually absolute. In other words, hers is a clarity that triumphs over everything else.

Aleks Bartosik was asked not that long ago what inspired her and she responded with an understatement and honesty that still rings true:


“People. I'm inspired by the particularities, delicacies, sensitivities, beauties and obsessions held within relationships between lovers, siblings/twins, friends, strangers, or themselves. I like to observe the visible (and accessible) interactions between people and the situations they are placed in and re-create my own scenarios and my own environments and narrations.” (2)


She is a gifted critic and surveyor of the Social, or say, better, a wily ethnographer of the inner and outer worlds of her female protagonists and their tangled skein of relationships in the lived world. Aleks agonistes. She is untangling a noose to catch her viewers’ heads in, as she lures them into her own oneiric and ontologically fraught domain wherein they may experience pleasure, as she says, or experience a whole world of hurt heretofore only hinted at in the annals of their own lives or richly embedded there. She has said:


 “I want the viewers to have experienced some sort of a visual pleasure. Entered some sort of an imaginary land or situation. I am not particularly sure what I would like them to say, but I know what I would like them to experience. Perhaps they may say something like: "That was strange." in a delightful sense or a frightened sense. The Horse Heads (a work in progress) are rooted in a larger and deeper narrative, but I purposefully want them to appear playful and child-like.” (3)


That was strange. Yes, and surreal, too. But also emotionally true. Pleasurable? Often. Seductive? Yes. Painful, maybe, if truth be told. I have termed the characterizing ethos of her work “dark karma”. But this is limiting, even misleading, especially where it dovetails with Buddhist teaching, because it only tells one side of the story, offers only half the truth, if you will. The whole truth is this: if there is dark karma in her work, there are also textures of light karma strewn out across its full array that invigorate and might well redeem the present tense of painting.

Perhaps Bartosik is reminding us – reminding herself as well, of course -- that this fragile life we live, is, well, fragile, and overwhelmingly a consequence and not a mere souvenir or portent of how we have lived. A life lived in and through angst and psychic suffering (i.e. dark karma) is a consequence of having lived controlled by desire-nature. If a life lived meretriciously (i.e. light karma) is a result of having lived in control of desire-nature, well, Bartosik demonstrates that too, and in the very execution of these works, with their fearless mien, and transparent process-esthetic, and, above all, her will to move forwards restlessly from one medium to the next, all the while embroidering her signature cosmogony with myriad scars and cries of ecstatic joy and agony across the face of the life-world.

Arguably, her whole body of work, in its very ethic of execution and resolute “isness” in the world, can be fruitfully understood in terms of the concept of dark-and-bright action as the presence of wholesome and unwholesome features in the self-same action in Buddhist thought. (4) One might suggest that she is a savant of the lower worlds and perhaps intends that her work itself is an adamantine bridge towards overcoming desire-nature, making dark karma light, and triumphing over the specters of adversity by walking on air, seraph or sylph-like.

If you have the strength, if you possess the emotional wherewithal, the psychological stamina, and above all, if you are not afraid of the dark, Aleks Bartosik will take you by the hand and lead you over the threshold into the nightside of Eden where she will proceed to take you places you’ve never been, show you things that you have never seen, and perhaps see the life run out of you. (5) Her invitation to the dark side of dreamland, writ in letters awash in blood, bruises and a tremulous beauty, is one hard to resist. Yes, this work stakes that kind of claim, possesses both a fiercely visceral and fiendishly auratic life, is not easily dismissed, and seldom forgotten.

In effect, Aleks Bartosik’s art seesaws in arresting and exhilarating fashion between the purely abject and the authentically human; between a psychological hard place and a perilous beauty, as it were. Perilous because it trembles ghost-like on the threshold of disappearance as quickly as it is glimpsed, and morphs from dream into nightmare and back again in a bare nanosecond.

Not since Betty Goodwin left us (she died last autumn at the age of 85) has a Canadian artist measured and plumbed so fearlessly and with such remarkable acuity and devil-may-care abandon the hungry tides and restless shadows of the human heart.


James D. Campbell



 1. See John M. MacGregor
 Henry Darger In The Realms of The Unreal (New York: Delano Greenidge Editions, 2002).
2. Aleks Bartosik, cited in post submitted by Jen 11/28/2007 on She Does the, online text.
3. Ibid.
4. See “Dark and Bright Karma: a New Reading” by Dr. Abraham Vélez de Cea of the Georgetown University Theology Department at As the author notes, this concept “has an enormous potential to explain the ethical behavior of many Buddhists. In this sense, the concept of dark-and- bright action bridges the gap between theory and practice in Buddhist ethics, that is, between the elitist and idealistic view of Buddhist ethics characteristic of Abhidharma literature, and the more common ethical practice of ordinary Buddhists.”
5. As the malevolent spirit and splendidly righteous anti-heroine -- played by the inimitable Alice Krige -- said with relish in the film version of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story.

Copyright © 2009,  James D. Campbell