Being a follower and fan of the artwork of Regina and Charlie, I have been struck by the way each of them has developed and produces a psychological landscape that remains consistent over the years, yet always surprising. The images grant me the privilege of entering into their psychic space. The following impressions are of course filtered through my own biases and dispositions and may not accord with what other viewers feel.
Regina Bartkoff paints a nightmare(ish) world of imbalance and vertigo. Her characters are often poised in precarious situations: walking on hi-wires or rope-like bridges swinging over a sea of uncertainty. Sometimes they appear loosely caged in caves, gates, grates, train tunnels, stairwells or on roller coaster tracks looping across empty landscapes—all elements of a fluid grid that appears and disappears in a sinister serpentine manner. These are not everyday landscapes we can easily identify; they are the liminal zones of disassociation with few orienting structures. When buildings do appear, they seem to be the types of houses you’ve been warned against, either by neighborhood gossip or the numerous horror movies you might have seen. They are nailed together, insubstantial clapboard structures at the end of some remote road, way out on the edge of town, where the only sounds you hear, if any, are muffled screams or mumbled conversations.
And the characters themselves: they are waif-like creatures with thin skeletal fingers reminiscent of insect legs or the roots of saplings. Their heads are like strange balloons, floating in womb waters of brilliant singular colors such as blood reds, sinister greens, apocalyptic greys and occult, mustard yellows. They are hybrid creatures, part wide-eyed child sprites from a Margaret Keane painting, part tortured fugitives from a James Ensor or Edvard Munch canvas. Their expressions often suggest imminent threat and they speak in sighs, cries, whistles, and moans, as if letting the air out of the void inside them. It would be easy to say they are versions of Regina herself—restless ghosts of childhood rising larvae-like from the cisterns of her unconscious. Or, perhaps they are the visions from some feral upbringing, like Kaspar Hauser, children raised in isolation and thus forced to conjure their own “friends” from the elemental voices of nature. All this speaks to why, when I look at these paintings, I can’t help but worry. Regina’s paintings are disturbing both in their simplicity and their anxiety. Yet for all this, her characters rarely seem evil, there is often a tremendous sweetness to them, both in their shared bond of isolation, and their Manga-style innocence. But they are innocent in the way refugees and the children of war and violence are innocent—you may not be able to trust them, but they require compassion just the same.
Sometimes I see dark Biblical dramas taking place in Charlie’s work—acts of supplication and judgment, witness and coercion, redemption and refusal. And you could add to this the recognition of multiple versions of the universe. For Charlie, the skin between worlds is thin, porous, and everything is on the verge of merging, or dividing into pleasure and threat, memory and prophecy. Alternative selves are often seen hovering about as the protagonist becomes his own accuser, his own judge and jury. This multiplicity has an amoebic quality by which the self can be seen splitting and morphing into various stages of resolution, like a Francis Bacon figure, as if each of us, in our mortal form, is but a cocoon, a chrysalis that must eventually split open so the other selves inside can ooze out.
Many of Charlie’s figures find their métier in landscapes of uncertainty, where gothic mystery meets astrophysical jazz. His paintings capture them in their mystical pilgrimage: hovering in the dark, contemplating obscure horizons, or conducting the mad blinking illumination of the sublime. And there may be violence: we see a man streaked with blood dangling two severed heads above what could be a crowd of the damned, or a flayed corpse floating in a sea of microbial life forms. But we see dreamers as well: a pilgrim walking off into a field of fire and light, a prophet standing in the mouth of a cave in the midst of wild turbulence. His characters come from different eras, different countries, different heavens and hells. Some have been dead a long time, some never died, some never lived. They are travelers, magicians wandering through the mindscapes of the painter as he attempts to fix in his art something that cannot be fixed, like those 19th century occultists who tried to capture the spirit world on film. I’ve seen Charlie’s people in dreams and in the alleys of foreign cities. Sometimes they remind me of the proverbial ghost in the machine, a face that appears on my computer screen, just for a second. Sometimes I’ll be in a strange hotel, looking in the mirror and suddenly notice someone behind me. But when I look again, they’re gone. But I know I saw them. And they were real. I think.
Remember: There are eight million opinions in the naked city; this is just one person’s impression.