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Harry Bartnick is never what you think. He makes paintings of vast and intricate scale that surprise us with unlikely details.

He cuts a somber figure and launches wisecracks over the heads of his New England School of Art and Design students in Boston like mortar fire, missing all but the older ones. He does it anyway. On his walls at home are vintage reproductions of Michelangelo and Botticelli; in his closet is a coveted collection of ridiculous album covers.

Both sides are Harry Bartnick, but for some reason he keeps his humor up his sleeve. His students suspect that he's being funny, and they love him for it. In the city of Boston, he has forged a reputation as perhaps its best and only superrealist.

When everyone else abandoned the style almost 20 years ago, Bartnick hung on. And just when it seemed that he couldn't take the lack of critical response a second longer, that he might even be discouraged enough to rethink his commitment, the Institute of Contemporary Art chose him to represent the city in its Boston Now exhibition. By all accounts, Harry Bartnick is back.

Most artists fear the elusive spirit that is art; they court it gently, try to sneak up on it, try to trap it in some formula. Not this artist. He goes about creating a painting the way Caesar crossed the Rhine. Conquest is only a matter of time. This is a thousand infantry men marching in perfect concert to a plan never in doubt.

Bartnick doesn't worry about art, he just gets the job done. Art takes care of itself.

What Bartnick does is relentless - that classic artist's quest to see harder, to keep looking when others tire, to observe what no one else has the time, patience, or courage to look for. Bartnick has Superman eyes. But it doesn't stop there; he also has a grand personal vision to go along with his grand realist style.

Bartnick paints the earth from above. The perspective gives him the kind of scope, distance, and opportunity he needs. It could be a bird's-eye view, one from an aircraft, or one from a visitor from another world.

He gives us a big-picture look at things, an idea of just what we humans are up to, carving up the planet like ants at a picnic.

That's part of Bartnick's agenda. He gets it all in there, and like the proverbial last lonely eagle scouring the landscape, he doesn't miss a thing: the tract housing, the concrete carpets of highway, the nuclear reactors, the gas stations, and shopping malls. It's a view of our lives with an edge, a beautifully painted, fun-to-look-at-all-the-little-details nightmare that we don't know if we can turn back from.

But Bartnick doesn't stop there. Within the bigger picture, he takes liberties with the larger shapes of things - another sign that he's having fun. The landscape starts looking like lizards or snakes - all those little bits of information coming together, coming alive. Who knows what it means? Or what else he's up to that remains to be found, because for sure there is more.

But these are levels of visual and metaphorical experience in the work, at once a game, and then somehow uncomfortably serious, the way only humor can sometimes take on what is otherwise too awful to look at. Bartnick does all this.

So the next time you're looking at a large realist landscape and thinking to yourself, ``how beautifully painted,'' look again. It could be a Bartnick, and then who knows what you might find?

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