In both his subjects and the way he paints them, it’s the “in between” that captures the imagination and heart of Philadelphia-based artist Michael Bartmann.
In his exhibit, “Structure, Time, Process,’’ on display through July 27 at CityFolk Gallery, Bartmann’s fascination with abandoned industrial buildings focuses on Lancaster.
A number of familiar local sites, including Armstrong and the Stehli Silk Mill, take center stage.
He sees his subjects as being “in between” what they once were and what they will become.
“They have the hope of the future and a sense of the past,’’ Bartmann says. “I kind of see them as heroic. I think of the lives who came before, the ones who inhabited the space, and wonder about what the future will bring.’’
Sometimes the future is revitalization, which Bartmann admits is great for the community, but adds “there’s always something lost.’’
For example, he loved staying at Lancaster’s Cork Factory Hotel, but wouldn’t paint it now. It’s no longer “in between.”
But of course it’s much worse when the buildings are destroyed, he says. He has seen more than his share of that.
One of the few paintings in the exhibit of subjects outside of Lancaster city is titled simply “Gone.’’
“In Quarryville there’s an old grain elevator that had been slowly deteriorating,’’ he says. Bartmann passed it on his many trips to Lancaster from Philadelphia.
He photographed it in its various states. Now “it’s a mountain of concrete covered in weeks,’’ he says.
His painting depicts the grain elevator in an early stage of decay.
“There’s a (Charles) Demuth painting called “My Egypt,’’ Bartmann says. “That was my version of the subject matter.”
“A number of buildings I’ve painted are gone now. There are buildings I’ve started painting and they’re gone by the time I’m done.’’
But whether they are torn down or revitalized, the focus is on the buildings themselves. He’s not on a mission to chronicle the changing landscape.
“Regardless of any story or feeling, I have a passion for the space,’’ he says.
“If the building hadn’t been built and then abandoned, it wouldn’t be in this state.’’
And being in “this state’’ is what Bartmann finds irresistible.
Without the distractions of purpose, a building is free to be what it is. And as an artist who spent years as a landscape architect, Bartmann is free to appreciate its lines, its form and especially its spaces.
And here again comes the “in between.’’
It’s not always the structure, but the spaces in between the walls or the rafters that speak to Bartmann, because he can interpret that on the canvas through the use of oil paint and technique.
Even though he’s painting buildings, his work is less representational than it is atmospheric.
A steel beam may fade into oblivion, leading the viewer to explore an open space. The interior of a cavernous Stehli Silk Mill is ghostlike save for the vibrantly rusting girders.
The paintings have an aged, almost abandoned, feel to them — a sense of kinship to their subject.
“I first get to know the space and then I manipulate it,’’ Bartmann says. And he gets to know it well. He may stay with one building for months before searching for a new subject.
“As long as it keeps leading me forward, I kind of like taking small steps, “ he says.
At first look, there seems to be a conspicuous lack of life in Bartmann’s paintings. But look again.
“The aging, the weathering of nature is the organic part,’’ he says. Life is all around as nature reclaims what humans have forgotten.
But there is another organic element, as well.
“The viewer is the figure in the painting,’’ Bartmann says. “If there’s a person in the painting, it’s not your space. You’re intruding on the person in the painting.
“I want the viewer to be able to roam around the space the way they want to.’’
He also leaves openings so viewers are free to leave and reenter the painting as they choose.
“It expands the painting beyond the canvas,’’ he says.