by Susan McCulloch
October 1995 - Australian Galleries, Melbourne - Catalogue
The most notable aspect of Dean Bowen's post 1990 work is his evocation of a universal urban experience, combined with a strong Australian identity.
To reflect the city-based life of today's Australia through new images and styles while retaining a distinctly local quality has been one of the most significant challenges for Australia's post 1950s artists. Reluctant inheritors of a long, distinguished and somewhat overpowering history of great landscape painting, artists such as Dean Bowen (who was born in 1957) faced something of a dilemma. How to become part of the international avant-garde yet retain a link with Australian art? The answer for many, if not most, was to kick over the traces of the past so firmly that any elements of parochialism were banished. A few, including Bowen, took, what I believe, the more difficult path - that of making their art relevant on an international stage while incorporating, unsentimentally, elements of both the Australian tradition of landscape painting and Australia's contemporary bush, country and city life.
In attempting to achieve this (something of a tall order), there has often been a sense of restless exploration in Bowen's work. It was as though you could see where he was going, what he was wanting to use, what he was wanting to express, but often something about the images did not quite click.
In the early 1990s, however, something extraordinary happened. His vision and his medium - printmaking - fused to produce images which are both well resolved and intriguing. Choosing to focus on printmaking as his prime medium helped clarify the style, and in the works in this catalogue of prints, sculptures and tapestries we see him producing on a new plateau of surety.
Particularly striking is Bowen's ability through use of colour to add a textural dimension to a medium often limited by its technique. The process of building up the colours he sees as being like a series of veils - each colour enhancing rather than obscuring the layer beneath. The result is vibrant colouration, a sense of depth and rich texture.
Observations of the everyday experience, childhood memories, books and literature portrayed with gentle humour and irony, are the base for these urban 'wildlifes'. Roads, cars, people, Australian fauna and trees, flattened in perspective or seen in cross-section slices, are favoured subjects. His Victorian country-town upbringing and observations of the bush on fishing and shooting trips with his father emerge in works such as Father and son (1993) and Farmer returning home (1995) - the figures in typical profile, the cars seen from the side, in section.
Between 1990 and 1993 Bowen made three trips to France to work with various printers including Atelier Franck Bordas in Paris and Atelier URDLA in Lyon. Later Bowen described the atmosphere at Bordas' studio as 'an orchestra of artists' with Bordas 'in the middle conducting it all, with the door bell buzzing, and people from all walks of life, drawn to the studio like moths to a flame. Wonderful things happen there' (Imprint, volume 28, number 4, 1993).
Bowen was ripe for such 'wonderful things', mainly the chance to totally immerse himself in the making of art. A year before he had been retrenched from his long held full time job in a printing factory. 'I knew,' he said, 'even at the moment the boss was sacking me I wouldn't be looking for another job.' Now he felt was the time for the precarious leap into making one's way as an artist without the support, but equally stifling presence, of another full time job. The risk paid off. Not only did his work flower, public recognition followed. In 1992 he was awarded a total of three grants and residencies which, combined, led to the uninterrupted period in France. And in 1994 he won two major print prizes - the Fremantle Print Award and the Mainichi Broadcasting System Prize in the Osaka Print Triennale.
The large etching, drypoint and aquatint The car park (winner of the 1994 Fremantle Print Award) has since attracted much attention. The car park epitomises qualities found in the best of his post 1990 work. Born out of the daily grind of stop-start commuting by car along Melbourne's Punt Road to and from his former workplace, the feeling of this large work (just over two metres long) is of duality. On the one hand there is the crowded chaos of a relentless number of cars choking the roads; on the other, order is imposed in his aerial view of cars 'parked' around intersecting roads as well as the actual charting of roads and interstitial spaces. Zooming in as though from above, cars are alternately cross-sectioned and flattened in outline. Despite his denial that there is nothing reminiscent of Aboriginal art in this work, to the onlooker there are quite a number of similarities. Not that he presumes anything of the Aboriginal experience or imagery (indeed, that it is unconscious is probably the only reason it works), such qualities are nevertheless present. The aerial perspective, for example, is so like the Aboriginal system of painting song lines and dreaming tracks from above. And as seen in the famous 'X ray' paintings of Arnhem Land, his cars and buildings are cross-sectioned to reveal the objects (usually humans) within. The impression of Aboriginally is further given by his use of earthy browns and by the outlining of shapes (cars, roads, trees).
It is a quality present in many other works. Suburbanology (1995) with its numerous but simply outlined, trees, houses and streets is a work of almost equal ambition to The car park. You can see how well Suburbanology will evolve into a tapestry in the hands of the weavers of the Victorian Tapestry Workshop. Bowen was commissioned by the City of Melbourne to produce a design on which the tapestry is based.
Although, while there are obvious references in Bowen's work to the naive, direct quality and simple forms of both Jean Dubuffet and art brut, the influence on him is more of the philosophical aspects of art brut than its stylistic representation. For Bowen's direct nature and egalitarian beliefs lead him to an acceptance that art is for everyone; and, as art brut epitomises, that art by the untrained, or naive, is as valid as that done by the most highly trained 'professional'. Such directness is fundamental to his image making. Here are no obscure textural references, their meaning available only to a tiny percentage of viewers. These are images we can all relate to. With their quirky humour and imaginative perception often highlighting some of the absurd aspects of human behaviour they have some of the poignant, wry commentary of Michael Leunig.
Visual puns are most evident in works such as The rough nuts (1995) (peanut-shaped heads silhouetted in a car); Echidna on my head (1994) which has been made also into a sculpture (the animal sitting incongruously on an Albert Tucker Antipodean-style profiled head) and in the more lyrical Rain at sea (1993) and Lovers' rendezvous (1995).
One has the sense with Dean Bowen that this is only the beginning; that frustrating though it must have been for the artist himself, the time taken for his art to tap a wider public awareness has on the whole been both necessary and worthwhile. For now we have works arising from the surety of a still young, but more mature perspective. Dean Bowen will, I am sure, continue to surprise, delight and intrigue with images of modern Australia, filtered ever more confidently through a particularly perceptive and highly individual eye.
© Susan McCulloch, October 1995
Susan McCulloch is a Melbourne art writer and coauthor of the Encyclopedia of Australian Art.