Argy Bargy Dean Bowen
Essay by Sheridan Palmer
Dean Bowen Monograph
Macmillan Art Publishing
In a rapidly changing, urbanised world, Dean Bowen's art maps our metropolitan and emotional conditions, transforming contemporary rituals and memories into accessible images, emblems and narratives. Indeed, Bowen persuades us to look not so much at the grand or romantic spectacle but at ourselves, and those intimate elements we often take for granted. His paintings, sculpture and prints show us a world populated by birds, animals, humans, aeroplanes, trucks and quirky automobiles. But with a subtle manoeuvring of our senses he guides us to intangible places where the earth meets the sky, or where the mysterious realm of stars, space, light and darkness, fullness, emptiness, movement and inertia invite our emotional and intuitive faculties into play. His images are usually reductive, even primal, an aesthetic language that invokes the simple pleasures of the natural world or the honed rhythms of a mechanical metropolis. Moreover, Bowen's art shatters the notion of post-structuralist complexities and the sterile elegance of conceptualism, with an emphasis on a 'radical innocence', a figurative engagement that is at once playfully antagonistic yet felicitously humorous.
While Bowen offers few or no conclusions in his art, therefore relieving it of moralising inferences - he considers his work a reflection of the ever-changing terrain of emotions - he does, however, search for a unity or coherence within the image, an expression that reflects a shared universal, a familiar pose or a simple, common gesture that is not deflected by ambiguous appearances. As Bowen has said it is his intention to place comprehensible signposts within the structure of his pictures, so as to allow easy recognition of the plot or the narrative. Instead, his imagery returns us to the stimuli of organic forms - human nature as a marker of the known, what Ortega Y Gasset called an art that 'is reflected life, nature seen through temperament'.1 What distinguishes Bowen's temperament is his optimistic approach to life. In children he sees innocence and laughter as pure pleasure; traffic is animated, quirky and regulated, and animals command their true autonomy. His art bends accepted aesthetic rules, succeeds in reinstating 'emotional honesty' and transforms our concepts of delight in an age of fast, socio-political hierarchies. It is a refreshing antidote to post-colonial scepticism, and one that proudly exhibits what might be called an Australian larrikinism.
There are, however, some tensions within these realms of existence, and Bowen examines the modern through his use of man and the universe, and nearly always man or animal or bird alone. Even in his paintings and prints of cityscapes and urban traffic the drivers seem content within their encapsulated, solitary existence. This singularity tends to amplify the alienation of a species in a world increasingly opting for a digitalised existence. But by questioning and illuminating the singular object, Bowen draws our attention to the very importance of life itself, even one that is subjugated to a deficit in communication or the relentless pressures of a busy urban existence.
Situating himself within the paradigms of the marginal outsider Bowen established quite early in his career an attraction to the principles of informal art or Art Brut, Outsider Art, which later included the influences of Art Primitif, African art and some Australian aboriginal art. Certainly, Bowen shares an aesthetic rapport with Gaston Chaissac, Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacometti, Giorgio de Chirico, Fernand Léger, Pablo Picasso and Niki de Saint Phalle, or the Australian artists Bruce Armstrong, Sam Byrne, Victor Litherland, Rover Thomas and Ginger Riley. Other key artists who have influenced him at particular phases of his development include Rick Amor, George Baldessin, John Brack, Roger Kemp, Jan Senbergs, Fred Williams and Danila Vassilieff. While Bowen considers that one of the artist's many roles is to stand apart as an objective viewer or visionary, there remains a firm link with society. Indeed, as Paul Klee felt, 'the final source of power in the artist is given by society'.2 It is therefore important to understand Dean Bowen's art as operating on a dual basis, where there is both a social and biological sense of order, one in which human activity has its proper, social place, as well as its natural logic and its innate momentum.
Art must make you laugh a little and make you a little afraid. Anything as long as it doesn't bore.
Jean Dubuffet. 3
Within Bowen's idiosyncratic schema, the focus usually moves between the panoramic to the singular figure or object. The singular bird, a singular child, or relic, stands objectified as though it is a commemoration of a species or an endangered memory. This inevitably suggests a melancholy associated with the inference of loss and loneliness. And certainly this is evident in the haunting, existential Rain at sea, 1993, which was later developed into a bronze sculpture Boat, 2008, and can be read metaphorically as an individual's precarious journey into the unknown. Whereas his etchings of tanks or planes are an alert signal or 'road sign' that sharply warns us of the possibility of war and death. In this case his striking etching of Crashing plane, made in 1991, alludes to his opposition to the Gulf war. Yet, more often than not, Bowen's oeuvre is distinguished by a pervasive humour that emerges in a glimmering portrait, whether it is of a cat, bird or a human being, and we see in a smile a benign transcendence, or in a whimsical or coy gaze an enduring, timeless quality. This essential humanity is what gives Dean Bowen's art such profound intensity and such direct joy. Hope and happiness, one aspirational the other real and physically quantifiable, is delivered simultaneously, and correlates the metaphysical with the material. A radiant, red smile prompts a plethora of responses, it is seductive, surreal and primal, and probably a combination of all three. There is a sense of completeness in the image of a boy holding his plane or a woman holding a flower, and there is the sheer contentment of a bird on its branch. These essential qualities are stripped of pseudo ideologies, and are more concerned with reinstating 'paradise lost', that of the ideal cooperation between nature and humans.
The common man
Throughout his life he felt the need for the warmth of the interwoven existence of an ordinary community.4
Dean Bowen is attuned to the common denominators of life, whether it is the hard worn patience of a farmer or what makes a city tick. He redirects us to those things that are 'always found within ourselves' such as laughter, defiance or trust.5 Growing up in central Victoria, in the country town of Maryborough, he learnt about the rules of nature and the function of human beings in both the natural and man-made environments. This gave him a template for much of the iconography that would later develop in his art. Observations and lessons in life provided a straightforward approach to existence, where if you caught a fish or killed a rabbit then it was eaten soon after. Accompanying his father on fishing and shooting trips or into the bush to collect firewood Bowen absorbed the colours, textures, sounds and scents of the rural environment, visual and sensory elements that have continued to pervade his work. His etchings Almost home, 1995, and Farmer returning home, 1995, possess a palette reminiscent of the colours of dried earth, brittle eucalypts, white quartz, ochre gravel and shades of the rural Australian landscape. Bowen chooses his colours as he would pick up a stone, an instinctual response to form and mood, 'Primitive man seems to have had a natural colour sense, instinctive like the scent of a dog'.6
The large etching Father and son, 1993, is another work where the colours and textures of the print not only evoke the telluric conditions of the bush, but are symbolic of the bond between a father and son, or universally speaking, all fathers and sons. This print was a breakthrough for Bowen in a number of ways. It won the Mainichi Broadcasting System Prize at the Osaka Print Triennale in 1994, his first international success and one that opened doors for future exhibitions in Japan, but it was also innovative in technical experimentation, surface treatment and the use of multiple plates.
Dean Bowen's father Joe was a house removalist, which involved long journeys transporting dwellings.7 Occasionally his son joined him on the job where he watched empty houses being lifted with heavy, industrial ratchet jacks onto long trailers and hauled to their destination by trucks. It was a lesson in hard, synchronised, masculine labour, and is marvellously evoked in Joe's truck (moving the house), 1989. The notion of departure, migration and arrival, or that it was not necessary to always live in one place, gave Bowen an alternative view of the general stationary condition of people's lives. Even as a boy he loved journeying, and when the family made a trip to Melbourne, Bowen's excitement was hard to conceal. He also considered the study of geography and history important adjuncts to understanding other cultures. Boundaries were never an issue for Dean Bowen and this view of the wider world provided a way of understanding his own transitions. As he says, 'I've often thought that the best way to understand a place is to leave it and experience life elsewhere'.8
Driving along highways and roads that snaked towards horizons, through the countryside towards cities, he was conscious of where one world ended and another urban one began. The use of divisional lines made by roads or the horizon line accentuated the spatial elements of distance and objects, and as Susan McCulloch has pointed out, there is a certain similarity with the Aboriginal method of painting 'song lines and dreaming tracks', or the graphic analogy of the 'X ray paintings of Arnhem Land', with Bowen's cross-sectioning of his cars.9 While this pictorial treatment began to appear more regularly around 1994 with etchings such as Autoportrait, 1994, The car park, 1994, and Almost home, 1995, it was a development that grew out of a sustained study of many influences, but in particular the work of the self-taught French artists Gaston Chaissac, who Bowen finds 'both terrifying and wonderful', and Jean Dubuffet. But it was the pleasure of long distance driving, where the mechanics of a propelled force manifested a fusion of distance, motion and time that created an enduring impact. The paintings Celestial, 2004, The drift of stars, 2005, or his etchings Starry night, 2005, and Night on earth, 2006, achieve an existential force where the temporal and the immanent meet.10
It is not difficult, then, to understand the transposition of trucks, cars, houses, roads and skies as consistent and important themes in Bowen's art. This combination of the rights and passages of the common man with that of the imaginary world also led Bowen to develop a visual structure for understanding identity, form, meaning and function. This enabled him to classify objects, which included himself, within the local and larger universe. In primitive or mythical worlds, this form of classifying and structuring usually involved an ulterior conjunction with the animal or plant world, and Bowen found that by developing an idiosyncratic totemism, one uniquely and distinctly Australian, he could socially and culturally locate himself within a correlating universe, a binary functioning system of man and animal. This totemic identity may seem a masquerade in a world fixated with labelling, but it was another way of establishing a spiritual connection, a 'continuity between past and present', between man and nature and man and man.11 Taking the spiky Australian echidna as his totemic emblem, Bowen restructured and exchanged his physiognomic identity - specifically the irrepressible, verticality of his hair - for that of the image of the spiky creature. There is a comic edge to this type of animistic representation, as Bowen himself has said, these works were a self-portrait joke, but that joke has become his enduring leitmotiv. His etching Echidna, 1998, or the bronze sculpture Echidna on my head, 1995, and another version made in 2006 illustrate Bowen's continuing exploration of his ulterior identity.
Totemic iconography of this kind and the artist's metamorphic genesis to that of an alternative species is not uncommon. Pablo Picasso's alter ego is the minotaur, the half man, half bull; Odilon Redon's orphic symbolism included man as a cactus;12 and the Australian aboriginal painter Ginger Riley's work frequently includes the artist's guardian spirit Ngak Ngak, the white breasted sea eagle.
A thousand ideas
In 1969 as a student at the Maryborough Technical School, Dean Bowen began printmaking. His teacher was Neil Leveson who inspired and helped Bowen define his artistic direction. John Robinson, Wes and Carol Lancaster were other inspirational teachers who made Bowen's education an exciting, explorative period, but it was the dynamic, witty and charismatic Leveson who effortlessly engaged with people that were enthusiastic about life and art. Instantly recognising Bowen's originality and fantastic ideas, Leveson taught him methods, techniques and the importance of new approaches and diversity, and that to successfully manifest an image, the concept must be accompanied by skill and a passionate commitment. Indeed, it was Neil Leveson who encouraged Bowen to go to art school and, many years later, was supportive of him becoming a fulltime, professional artist.
Bowen left for Melbourne in 1974 to study art at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), and on completing his degree embarked on a two year journey through Europe, England and briefly New York, indulging in the great art of the past and present. This was the beginning of an insatiable desire for travel, but it was also a productive period of intense self-education, where his knowledge of styles and artists broadened and became more defined. Returning to Australia in 1979, he found employment in commercial lithography, an occupation he maintained for some twelve years. During this period he painted at night and weekends, but eventually condensed his full-time employment into three days so as to work four straight days in his studio. It was a time of enormous experimentation and increasing determination to become a professional artist. Between 1983 and the end of 1984, Dean Bowen, with Roger Taylor and George Christofakis, established the weekly radio programme Gotham City Gossip, initially on 3CR and later on 3RRR. This maverick trio interviewed artists, curators, art dealers and the cultural cognoscenti, such as George Mora and the then director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Patrick McCaughey. Heated debates often erupted on related cultural issues, but, importantly this public platform gave a voice to the contemporary artist.
In 1984 Bowen returned to Europe where he visited Fernand Léger's studio in Normandy and also visited the Léger Foundation near Nice. It is understandable why this artist remains an inspiring source as Bowen shares Léger's concern for the common people living within a socio-economic and industrialised reality. Equally important was Bowen's journey to Egypt where he was profoundly impressed by the pyramids, bas-reliefs and sculptures, especially those representing birds or animals. This wild, exotic and ancient culture and its monolithic relics of geometric mastery has endured as a both a mythical and functional reality, and though separated by thousands of years shares a symbolic, aesthetic vigour apparent in both Bowen and Léger's work. Indeed, Bowen invites an observation on the immortalising of the archaic with his sculpture Bird wall, 2004-2007, which was a finalist for the 2008 Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award.
A modern French philosopher wrote that 'All the toys one commonly sees are essentially a microcosm of the adult world; they are all reduced copies of human objects, as if … the child was … nothing but a smaller man, a homunculus to whom must be supplied objects of his own size'.13 Toys condition the child for the adult world and in many cases betray the art of original inventiveness, providing cues for role playing rather than giving them carte blanche. Children are inheritors of objects already created for the purpose of socialisation, the toys are the ready-made, the stereotype or the ultimate imitation. It is a paradox that permeates much of Bowen's work where he juxtaposes the naive innocence of a child with a contrived object, but this only shows us the very issue that connects the two - play and imagination. Indeed, Bowen succeeds in signalling the essential impulses associated with games and gambols, flicking the nerve that alters our reality and expands our imagination, and where better to investigate this than in the fictional world of children.
On his first journey to Europe in 1977 Bowen discovered several toy museums, in particular the famous Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood in London, which houses an extraordinary collection of historic toys ranging from recreations of butchers shops to glassy-eyed wax dolls to steam trains. He aesthetically distilled these miniature play objects and created an art of dinky-toy world landscapes, factories, weird cityscapes or heavy mining and industrial operations. While Bowen's toy-world operates on more than one level, we see in many of the prints made from the late 1980s through to the early 1990s his attraction to the mechanical and his concerns about institutionalised or industrialised environments. Toy-like building blocks, mechanical cogs, chains, trucks, factories, planes or boats become commoditised metaphors for an adult world. Again we find no judgements being made, but the lithographs Metropolis, 1988, The strange city, 1988, and Toy town, 1989, or the etching The coloured factories, 1988, and his lithographic series in part inspired by the copper mine of Mt. Lyell in Tasmania come closest to a statement on the transformative processes of capitalist materialism .
But Bowen has always found industrial bi-products attractive; junkyards and rusted mountains of bent and twisted metal in the now vanished old rail-yards at the Docklands and the patinas of industry were appealing for their textures, colours and the effects of time and corrosion. Indeed, the very antithesis of meticulously made toys. In 1983, he saw Jan Senbergs's spectacular Copperopolis series at the Powell Street Gallery in Melbourne, the work striking an immediate accord with his own aesthetic sensibilities. It prompted him to travel to the Tasmanian mining towns and see for himself the degraded environment denuded by excavation and poisonous, metallic residues, but which possessed all the same a ghostly and 'strange glory'.14 Combining toy-like imagery with the modernist, mechanical style of Fernand Léger, these scarified, skeletal landscapes, mining battlements and vulcanised chimneys assume an aesthetic memorial, a memento mori to archaic cultures.
Nostalgia for childhood permeates much of Bowen's ideology; the enchantment with innocence, his toy-like schema, the use of primary colours and the transformation of the self into a totemic effigy, argue for a plausible link between the emotional ties of childhood and the adult world of systematised conformity. This psychologically powerful, conceptual strategy amplifies the merging of the past into the present.
Insider or outsider
'Insider art implies [an established] canon around which artistic products and their makers are evaluated, along with a body of work that represents those standards.'15 Art that sits outside preconceived standards upheld by cultural establishments can be regarded as outsider art. Bowen adheres to both domains. Firstly, by succeeding in the mainstream of art at a local, national and international level and thereby endorsed by the art world, but also by imposing a certain marginal identity and creating an art that questions notions of canonised aesthetics.
Bowen's originality leads him towards people and ideas that are generally not affected by cultural contrivance. His art is derived from a dedicated pursuit of things 'outside the field of convention'.16 The French artist Jean Dubuffet's philosophy - 'subversion is what counts. Only invention matters'17 - and the art of Gaston Chaissac, or the American black naïve artist Bill Traylor amongst others, had a profound affect on Bowen, and reinforced his attraction to 'outsider art'. The gestural immediacy, the primal purity of expression and the subversion of traditional, representational forms excited and seduced Bowen. Jean Dubuffet, along with Alberto Giacometti and Francis Bacon, emerged as three of the twentieth century's most significant avant-garde artists, reflecting the agitated post-war mood where 'new perspectives, new pictorial expressions, new methods of visualisation [and] technical innovations' became accepted practice.18 Like these artists, Bowen uses the human figure as his primary image of communication, but he also includes the animal world as a way of de-centring the dominance of humans. This repositions the human condition and the value of creatures within a universe structurally dependent on man-made, scientific and material reality. We automatically understand the necessity of transport and the relationship between men and their aeroplane, The fliers II, 2005, or the farmer in his utility, Driving farmer, 2004–2007, but how often do we see the intimate balance of the natural world where animals triumph? The 1997 bronze Boy with birds imparts a curious kind of pleasure knowing that the birds control the act, the boy must remain calm and compliant with his feathered creatures if they are to stay, it is a relationship of unequal parts, the human condition is humanised by the sheer act of supporting, not controlling nature. It is another way of Bowen expressing his concerns for the environment and conservation, but ultimately we must judge the completeness or the vulnerability of what that relationship actually is.
Studios and ateliers
A master printer must combine technical expertise, the understanding of artistic production with a sympathetic and encouraging interpretation of an artist's style and philosophy. Neil Leveson took over as the director of the Australian Print Workshop (APW) in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy from John Loane in 1987, and built it into a major print facility that operated along lines similar to some of the best European and American ateliers. It attracted many emerging and established Australian artists and a few international ones, executing first-rate, original, editioned lithographs or etchings for artists such as Arthur Boyd, John Coburn, Brian Dunlop, John Olsen, Jan Senbergs and John Wolseley. In the company of such professional artists working with a master technician young printmakers were simultaneously trained. About this time Dean Bowen renewed his friendship with Leveson, and in 1989 decided to leave paid employment and become a full-time, practising artist, accepting casual work as a technician at the APW while also producing his own prints, often under Leveson's guidance.
The APW was a thriving, convivial studio perfectly suited to Bowen's needs and principles. As Leveson put it 'Art is society's dialogue with itself, and it shouldn't only be available to the rich. Prints give everyone a chance to have first-hand experience with good or great art at small prices'.19 Bowen regards working with this brilliant facilitator and successfully producing a large number of etchings and lithographs, as one of his most rewarding and constructive phases, one in which he learnt about the creative standards of collaboration.20 His etching Big hearted man, 1994 is a fitting homage to Neil Leveson who died in 1992, and to his generosity and humanism. As Bowen said 'The success or failure on any collaborative work between a printer and artist will always depend on the mix of personalities involved'.21
Dean Bowen's first visit to France to work specifically at an atelier was in 1990. At the Atelier Devreux-Gerbaud, in the small village of St Christol de Rodieres near Avignon, he spent three months collaborating with the French printers and creating a new series of lithographs. Bowen also managed to establish connections with other printing facilities and visited Atelier URDLA in Lyon, where he was invited by the senior printer Marc Melzassard to return and work the following year, also for three months. Each visit led to another invitation from another Atelier, and in late 1992 Bowen went again to France to work with Atelier URDLA and later at Atelier Bordas with Franck Bordas who had printed for artists such as Jean Dubuffet, Antonio Tàpies, Keith Haring and Pierre Alechinsky. Bordas is the grandson of Fernand Mourlot, whose famous Atelier was 'synonymous with the resurgence of lithography' and had produced prints for Vlaminck and Utrillo before 1939, and Braque, Chagall, Matisse, Mirò, Picasso and others after 1945.22 After seeing Bowen's etching Crashing plane, 1991, Bordas felt he had to 'dive into this artist's world'.23 Their collaboration was exciting and successful, with Bowen experiencing another productive period of printmaking with one of Paris's most technically brilliant printers. 'Frank had a great sense of humour. He and his projects were full of life, with an openness and inclusion, welcoming people and new ideas ... [his] Atelier located in the heart of Bastille added to this great energetic period'.24
While at Atelier Bordas, Bowen made his first artist's book, 'That big journey', 1993. It consisted of some fifty original lithographs that had been printed on a rare, giant nineteenth century Voirin press and encased in an embossed, cloth box. The book was the first in an experimental series that Bordas called the Paquebot, a French term for passenger boat or cargo boat. Some of the other artists who produced books in the series included Gilles Aillaud, Pierre Alechinsky, Ianna Andréadis, Jean-Charles Blais, Francois Boisrond, James Brown, Yuri Kuper, Bengt Lindstrom and Herve di Rosa. When Bowen held an exhibition of his prints and drawings at Galerie Franck and Herve Bordas in 1993, his work was very well received, with many of his artist's books sold on the opening night. It was an exhilarating moment for this Australian artist, an outsider in the Paris art scene.
Bowen visited other ateliers in Paris such as Atelier Clot and Atelier Pasnic, while in Italy he worked with John Kerr at Grafica Uno. He was exposed to a wide range of new techniques and traditional skills, some so meticulous that printmaking at times seemed like a scientific process. The experience was exceptionally beneficial for Bowen as a professional printmaker.
Shortly after his exhibition in Paris, Bowen returned to Melbourne where he resumed his residency at the Australian Print Workshop. After a year, however, he felt the need to leave this printing facility where he had worked for seven years. He accepted a brief artist's residency at Melbourne Grammar School for three months in which time he produced another artists book The motorworks etchings, 1994, a suite of twenty-one etchings. On completion of the residency he then moved to Bill Young's Studio in Middle Park. But by 1995 he felt it was time to establish his own printmaking studio and transformed several rooms of his Balaclava home for this purpose, naming it Nightingale Street Studio. Purchasing a large etching press and with no travelling time or interruptions, isolated yet extremely focused, Bowen's output increased substantially and he was able to push the boundaries even further. It was an intense phase of printmaking in an environment entirely built to his specifications and requirements.
In order for Bowen to make lithographs it was necessary to find an artist's lithographer and Bowen chose to work with Peter Lancaster who had trained at the Tamarind Institute in New Mexico. Lancaster acknowledged Bowen's own extensive training in this medium, and they established a collaborative relationship built on mutual respect, the adherence to traditional aspects of printmaking and a high standard of professionalism, one that mixed the experimental with their own predetermined knowledge. In the prints Giant bird singing in the rain, 2002, or Red nightingale, 2006, rubbings were taken from the rough, cracked, concrete floors and the textured, plaster walls of Lancaster's studio. These frottage sheets were cut into shapes and transferred onto litho stones. In another lithograph Travelling turtles, 2004, a complexity of colour, tonal mixing and painterliness beautifully intensifies the elliptical forms of the turtles.
In 2000 Bowen undertook a two-month woodblock residency on Awaji Island, situated between the Seto Inland Sea and Osaka Bay in Japan. Keiko Kadota, the Director of Nagasawa Art Park Residency, developed the idea to preserve the dying art of traditional Japanese woodblock printmaking and invited artists from around the world to study this method in Japan, thereby ensuring that 'artists would be like stones dropping in a pond and the rings going out would be the knowledge spreading around the world'.25 The master printer Tadashi Toda and the master carver Shunzo Matsuda instructed the artists in woodblock printing, care and use of tools, paper preparation, registration techniques, ink mixing, and paper-making. Bowen's woodblock Dog barking at earthquake, 2000, was in response to one of the two big earthquakes that he experienced while living on the island.
For Bowen ideas bounce off one medium to another but it wasn't until he had purchased a factory in the industrial suburb of East Moorabbin, in Melbourne's south east, in 2003, that he was finally able to diversify into large-scale paintings and sculpture. The new studio provided the physical and psychological space to rework many old ideas and themes into vibrant new work across mediums, a method that Louise Bourgeois is well known for, and whom Bowen regards highly. This leap towards multiple mediums enabled him to develop a common textural quality that strengthened the formal and stylistic connections between his paintings, sculpture and many of his prints.
Printmaking, painting and sculpture - methods, texture and materiality
A work of art is most captivating when it bears the mark of adventure, of the combat between the materials and the artist who didn't know himself where he was being led.
Dean Bowen found that 'the birth of a print can occur in a multitude of ways … I regard it as crucial that this language is flexible and adaptable to change and new discoveries'.27 His treatment of the etching plate or the matrix reveals his obsession with experimentation, often employing unorthodox approaches to manipulate the surface, attacking the plate with a hammer, searching for the right accidental mark as in Lyon boy 2003. At other times he has used electric grinders on re-used plates to erase an older image, panel beating sandpapers or nails to perforate or scratch the plate and produce textures of a marvellous, graphic intensity. Bowen's mark-making, rich tonal depths, numerous colour plates and maverick methodology has always been mediated by an aesthetic and intellectual evaluation. It is a debt to Fred Williams, one of the first Australian and local artists to develop innovative etching techniques, and who remains an inspiring figure for Bowen.
In an earlier etching Envy and Innocence, 1997, Bowen's inventiveness is seen in his use of three plates that were etched fourteen times using five colours.28 This large print won the Daikin Industries Company Prize at the Osaka Print Triennale in 1997. Again we see him dealing with a child's emotions, reminiscent of Brack's early paintings of children playing in the schoolyard, where the 'us and them' mentality emerges at its earliest and most primitive state. The print was inspired by a small painting of Danila Vassilieff, also titled Envy and Innocence, which Bowen saw in an exhibition 'Paintings from Living Life' at Heide Museum of Modern Art in 1996. Vassilieff's work portrayed the play of children set against the poverty of the suburban lanes, while Bowen pits the sulking little figure of envy against the central figure of innocence, a child oblivious to the carnage of the urban terrain.
Dean Bowen strives for unique, riveting images and innovative techniques. This is especially evident in the series of aquatints made at his Balaclava studio in 1996. These bold faces express curiosity, marvel or perplexity, simple yet explicit emotions, and are reminiscent of the French artist Chaissac's work, the 'innocent who was aware of his innocence'.29 They were also a response to Picasso's aquatints of women's heads, especially the beautiful colour aquatints of Portraits of Dora Maar, printed by Roger Lacourière in 1939. Bowen's Mr Marvellous, 1996 is 'a character who was marvellous in every way. He looked marvellous and met marvellous people'.30 Bowen used the same plates to produce Psychoplicity, 1996, 'the darker half brother of Mr Marvellous', and Multiplicity, 1996. All possess a savage, primitive humour, charged by an intense colour density achieved by using multiple plates and up to four colours, with the black key line made with sugar lift. These aquatints marked Bowen as a pioneer of new forms of print and confirmed his reputation as a leading Australian printmaker.
In 2000, Dean Bowen deliberately stepped away from printmaking and turned towards painting, rekindling a medium he had largely not touched since the 1980s. Part of the plan was to rework his printed images into large paintings and eventually sculptures and tapestries. Bowen has likened painting 'a bit like driving a car to Sydney, you have to concentrate all the time, with every kilometre, every corner'.31 The tactility of the paint, often mixed with sand, the active surface and the demands of consistently working out the processes, such as mixing colours, tones, or whether a glaze may or may not be needed, is quite unlike Bowen's printmaking. There is a real energy and directional flow in the large daub-like, pointillist and stippled surfaces, which collect and reflect light and expand and transform the picture plane into an active field. Any perspectival or long-range space is usually achieved by a structural linearism of diagonal or horizontal lines, as in roads or the horizon, such as Flying home (II), 2004, or The drift of stars, 2005. More often his paintings are either a celebration of a flattened, semi-aerial view of the urban world, or a mesmerising marriage of humour in portraits of iconic birds, cats or echidnas.
In Bouchon, 2008, we are drawn into the traffic, along bitumen roads that stretch across the entire picture plane, before being suctioned into the fluting bottleneck. The claustrophobic traffic forces a visual leap into a housing estate then to a parkland with its rows of uniform trees. Suddenly, we find ourselves sliding back into the bottleneck, the bouchon. It is a hypnotic spectacle inducing a giddy, deliriously circular current that operates in much of Bowen's art.
Perhaps more than his prints and paintings Dean Bowen's sculptures argue for an aesthetic that excludes any excesses of vanity. They are as far removed from the idealised classical, romantic or, for that matter, most figurative styles of the twentieth century. He makes intuition visible, thereby attaining a more primal originality. Even the use of bronze, a material traditionally and regularly used by artists for its permanence and commemorative value, seems secondary to the overall intensity or sensation of the subject.
When Bowen first turned his attention to sculpture in 1995, he started from a position of inexperience. Tentative and unsure of working with three-dimensional form, his sculptures looked like his prints standing upright. But he felt this succeeded, particularly where a re-interpretation of an idea in another medium gave concrete connections to his work, which was similar to how Giacometti's sculptures related to his post-war drawings and paintings. The impact of Giacometti on Bowen cannot be underestimated. Like Dubuffet, Giacometti also averts us from the notion of beauty towards what might be called an inventive caricature of life, where the most poignant features or the esprit de corps are forcefully extracted and rebuilt in an effigial manner. Social satire or caricature de-personalises the subject, but in Bowen's sculptural figures and animals a humanising vulnerability exists, like The big little man 1999, a large two metre bronze sculpture. In 2001 Bowen was selected to represent Australia in an outdoor exhibition Sculpture in contemporary art: The five continents, at the Place Napoléon Bonaparte at Fontainbleau, France,32 and this evocative sculpture was warmly received by the French, perhaps because The big little man represents the quintessential egalitarianism of the worker or the farmer. In 2008 it was acquired by ArtsACT, the ACT Government body and installed in the public mall of Petrie Plaza, Canberra, where similarly it represents the common man, or the First World War digger, an archetypal man with an unnerving natural attraction whose hat looks like the hilly landscape surrounding the nation's capital. Furthermore, Bowen's characters are likable and not aloof figures, but people drawn from life, the embodiment of affection or experience. Following in this vein is The farmer, 2007, which was commissioned by the City of Greater Shepparton for the redeveloped Shepparton showgrounds. This unique work had its genesis in Bowen's 1995 etching Farmer returning home, and commemorates the labour of generations of farming families in the Goulburn Valley. Another sculpture Boy with house and tree, 2006 captures a somewhat more elusive condition, that of the transitional stage of development between belonging, ownership and the adolescent desire for autonomy and freedom.
Bowen's sculptures are humble in a modest way, or totemic in a neo-primitivistic manner. They are 'a step outside the [modern] tradition' and yet are plainly 'a leap within it',33 meaning that Bowen combines the formal and technical requirements of constructing three-dimensional work with an intense psychological investment that endows his art with a purposeful hyper-presence. This is achieved in part by their frontality, where their features and solid mass is viewed not so much from the side or the rear but from the front. The interplay between the two and three-dimensional is intriguing, where the slim-line profile and the flattened, crumpled beer-can affect delineates the gestural, but we are also aware of what Barbara Nathan-Neher calls 'the balance between spontaneity and discipline, between the involuntary gesture springing from the unconscious … and … a tireless struggle for an ever-increasing technical accomplishment'.34
Whether we recognise the serious intent of a man driving his car, Serious driver, 1995, or a young speeding female in Speeding driver, 2008, Bowen seems to capture the spirit of a moment, not dissimilar to Giacometti's sculpture where the primary objective is 'to give the nearest possible sensation to that felt at the sight of the subject'.35 This can equally apply to his bronze animals, which, like Egyptian funerary artefacts of felines or birds, have a confronting presence, particularly Cat, 2004. Like those of another contemporary sculptor, Bruce Armstrong, these works assume a powerful animist engagement as they preside over their consigned territories.
Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Jean Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, Gaston Chaissac, Andre Breton, Philippe Dereux and Antonio Tàpies all made assemblages, recycling and transforming detritus or object trouvés into magical, counter-aesthetics. Bowen acknowledges the history of effigial and totemic cultures as well as these modern European artists, but in particular he pays homage to Dubuffet. His own 'found object sculpture' began in response to the slow and expensive costs of working in bronze, and as he collected his 'library of junk', discarded materials such as palm fronds, screws, door stops, electrical flex, hooks, wooden fence palings, plastic lids and seaweed fragments, he began to make figures that seemed to evolve of their own accord. Moreover, it was a happy and cathartic process and again illustrates the importance of play and free association. It was a process that induced a random, poetic reaction to dysfunctional objects, an intuitive activity in which materials mimic or evoke a particular personage, such as The playful prince, 2004 or Little Richard, 2007, and where Bowen operates at his most inventive. These assemblages function as the embodiment of our abandoned domestic and urban culture, and their orphaned state implies the homeless outsider. In their unpretentious and humorous way, they assert a stronger link with 'outsider art' and symbolise those issues most central to Bowen's philosophy, that of a humane, level playing field, one removed from any cultural contrivance.
Dean Bowen subscribes to the premise that a person's identity 'is truly revealed only at the limits of definition'.36 He depersonalises the subject by using the face as landscape, a metamorphosis that is reversible, as in the monoprints of the Boulder man series, 1996, or the etching Tectonic head, 2002, where the landscape and its tectonic plates materialise as a mortal figment. Lyon boy, 1993, an etching made at Atelier URDLA in Lyon, commands almost the entire paper size, and like a precariously balanced pulpit rock made of pumice stone, we see the transposition, as Bowen says, of the 'geography of the landscape [as] part of the geography of the face'.37 The reductive markings for the eyes, nose and two polyp sized ears and a red, horizontal slash for a mouth animate the visage, while the only hint of identity - a self portrait, is found in the elongated, broom-like crest of spiked hair. This print was made with what Bowen calls his 'hammer technique', where he put rocks on the plate and smashed them with a hammer so as to obtain the pitted crater-like surface. Like Dubuffet's Corps de dames paintings of 1950–51, where images of women lose their 'feminine specificity by being deemed metaphorical landscapes',38 so Bowen's faces are transformed rather than disfigured, into pitted, dented and scratched effigies. This amorphous figuration celebrates the formless into form, of one into the other, immaterialising the object and merging reality and abstraction together.
Dean Bowen's frieze-like paintings of cities and their urban density pulse with dynamic colour and composition. It is an iconography balanced between the familial and the known, a pervading sense of the urban spiritual and an urban utopia. Yet utopias are idealistic fictions, and like Jean Dubuffet some fifty years earlier who 'thr[ew] a strategic tantrum against history', Bowen has also rejected any aesthetic notion of stylistic pandering or, as Dubuffet put it, 'art works [that] have been marked by a stilted pretentiousness'.39 Instead, Bowen has developed a unique, visual vocabulary, an environmental symbolism. By 1992-3 his ideas and iconography had moved towards a contemporary theatre of life, one oriented to common universals. Bowen analyses the condition of society through his own condensed view of urban reality with an almost unyielding honesty, where humans, animals and birds function or nest comfortably together rather than betray or bellow at their neighbour.
Fernand Léger and John Brack were two artists that impressed Bowen with their linear stringency, mechanical forms and symbolism, but in particular Léger's socialist approach to the urban world and Brack's card and pencil battles - the 'us and them' formula - made a significant impact. When Bowen began painting cities, mass utilities and the urban grid systems he translated elements of these concepts into his work. His large paintings Contained city, 2005, Urban grid, 2005, and City road, inbound/outbound 2008, are urban frescoes, semi-aerial portraits of a city at work, in motion, architectural metaphors for a regulated environment. Jan Senbergs's tilting views of mangled freeways and metropolises, or Fred Williams' oblique, high-altitude angled landscapes spring to mind. But Bowen's paintings are more than a contemporary sociological statement about urban life: they resist the very thing that they seem to be about - conformity. The inert is animated. His urban housing density, houses neatly wedged together with their curiously human features of beaming windows indicate life within. The little, comic vehicles are jaunty and flow at a regular pace, moving into forked intersections and merging with traffic. Everything seems to be humming along nicely. There is no malice in these cities, the scenes are ordered yet full of motion, syncopated and pulsing, quiet yet full of imagined noise and sounds, inhabited yet uncannily devoid of human activity except for the drivers in their vehicles. Bowen seems to be reminding us that rules and order are contrived programmes designed to restrict social chaos and that a well-orchestrated world is a necessity. And even though his imagery asserts the objectification of habitats, his intention is on resurrecting optimism as a counter-balance to mundane conformity.
This is brilliantly explored in the large etching Urbanology, 1995, where humour battles with a darker testimony, where car eats car, and survival is a gladiatorial game. Another major work, also made in 1995, was a large commissioned tapestry Suburbanology, based on the etching of the same title, which was to be 'a more positive observation of Melbourne and its people'.40 In close collaboration with the weavers at the Victorian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne Bowen learnt how design was interpreted and how 'the fine detail of an etching could be lost with the warp and weft of woven fibre'.41 Yet this creative process of transforming a print into a large-scale tapestry was successful and the new work, which originally hung in the Melbourne Town Hall was later re-located to the foyer of the City of Melbourne administration building.
An avian continent
Several qualities are immediately obvious in Bowen's art. The raw, luminosity of colour intensifies our attraction to the images he creates whether it is the density of the black and its velvety, sensual quality, or the sheer brilliance of red, yellow or blue. Bowen uses colour to both seduce and challenge, and it is this confidence that distinguishes him as one of the most masterful printmakers and painters working in Australia today. His etchings, lithographs and paintings of birds, begun in 1998, habitually seek new species that shift or extend an idea or object into a vivid icon. The pure colours pierce, attract and challenge and the largesse of the bird's body is abstraction in its most poetic form, an ovoid, living organism, an avian continent. The bird's eye transforms into a target, a circular nucleus or an embryonic source, recalling the very essence of nature and the instinctual will of survival of a species.
These birds, perhaps the 'ultimate outsider', are creatures without boundaries. Yet they are rarely airborne, stationary purveyors that resonate with a calm resistance and permanently watch the world, observing or perhaps transcending urban materiality. This is the complexity of Bowen's oeuvre as he calls nature for what it is. Yet embodied in that truth lies a duality, one in which living is governed by a rational process but where the sublime is the fellow traveller of reality, where the smallness and fragility of human endeavour must be measured by the magnitude of space and the infinitesimal notion of existence.
Gaston Chaissac found creative stimulation from eaves-dropping or watching men or women toiling at work. In a similar way Bowen finds traffic, the orchestrated cacophony of the metropolis, a transfixing source. He is there amongst the drivers, leaving, arriving, then departing to come home, he is the driver in the small etching titled Joe – 237, 1994, Bowen is an integral part of the flow and conditions of the city. This urbanology, a word that sprung to Bowen while he waited in congested traffic, seemed 'to sum up the situation: the city's lack of space, man versus machine, car fighting car … and urban plants struggling to survive. To maintain a sense of humour seemed important'.42 His fascination with traffic has produced some extraordinary panoramic works such as The merge, 2005, City life, 2006, Transmetropole, 2007, Business prospers, 2008 and Argy-bargy, 2008. It is a theme that dates from 1994 when Bowen made an etching The car park, which won the Fremantle Print Prize of that year and was acknowledged for its innovative methods and outstanding technical quality. Ted Snell, the critic and then Director of the Visual Culture Research Unit at Curtin University, regarded Bowen as one of Australia's most outstanding printmakers, commenting that 'this marvellous work [with its] heavily worked plates yield up images of people trapped in the metal exo-skeleton of their cars, driving endlessly around in a maze of crescents and cul-de-sacs. Echoing the work of Jean Dubuffet and art brut he has created an image of the city that is both 'familiar, witty and terrifyingly prophetic'.43
Another world - Japan
It is this aspect of the 'familiar, witty and prophetic' that the Japanese find attractive in Dean Bowen's work. These elements are consistently explored in traditional and modern Japanese printmaking - a concern with the exchanges and nuances of life and society.
Over the past fifteen years Dean Bowen has successfully reached a new international audience in France, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and especially in Japan. In Paris, Bowen established a profile as an exciting printmaker while in Japan he has acquired an extensive and committed following. In 1994 Bowen won an important Japanese award at the Osaka Triennale (Print), with his etching Father and son, 1993. This led to an invitation from Yutaka and Ichiro Miyawaki to hold a solo exhibition at Galerie Miyawaki in Kyoto in 1995. It was the beginning of an extraordinary relationship with the Miyawaki family who embraced this Australian artist, marketed his work extensively and successfully developed Bowen's profile within Japan. In 2005, Bowen celebrated his tenth anniversary with Galerie Miyawaki, one of the oldest and most respected commercial galleries dealing in modern and contemporary art in Kyoto. More recently, Bowen's painting Contemplative journey, 2004, was selected as a finalist for the prestigious 'Renascence' exhibition at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe, held on the 10th anniversary of the great Kobe earthquake, and in 2007, he was invited to exhibit in the major exhibition 'Beauty of Heavenly Bodies and the Universe' at the Museum of Modern Art in Shiga, Japan. He has also exhibited at the Sogo Department Store Gallery in Toyota City in 1995 and the Keihan Department Store Gallery in Osaka in 1997. The Shirota Gallery in Tokyo's Ginza district is one of Japan's most important print galleries where Bowen held another successful exhibition in 1999, and in 2000 he was the first Australian to hold a solo exhibition at the Bunkamura Gallery in Tokyo.
The Japanese have a strong, defined history of printmaking and admire Bowen's craftsmanship. They are fascinated with this artist from the Antipodes, his humour, wit, quirkiness, sense of innocence and play, or the way he penetrates reality and unfolds the minutiae of daily life. This chimes with their own perception of existence where a visual spirituality and perfection is an important counter-condition to their densely populated, often chaotic, highly automated culture. His ideas complement the Japanese notion of life, where opposing forces of action and inertia, the human and the machine, or the exquisite and intricate beauty of a flower or insect belongs within their daily social and spiritual life.
To Bowen, animation is another medium to explore, connecting various themes and images that produce new ideas and extend existing ones. These whimsical, vignette pieces are concerned with story-telling in a manner unlike any other forms of illustration or image making. 'There is an obsessive and almost child-like interest in making things move - which often starts in childhood'.44 What emerged from this adventurous collaboration with Bowen's Japanese colleagues Yutaka Miyawaki, who initiated the idea of transforming Bowen's work into animation, Ayumi Sasaki and Hirokazu Sato - there are some eight short animations made between 2005 and 2008 - is a medley of imagery in which various mediums are cut, pasted, manipulated, spliced and animated. We watch Bowen's cats and dogs, birds and bees, cars and trucks, turtles and echidnas, trees and flowers quiver, amble or slide, buzz or bounce across landscapes accompanied by Spanish melodies, a Mozart minuet or experimental music. The journey captivates us, even if it is only for a few minutes, its effect gratifying and pleasurable, for it is a simple metaphor for the progress of time.
A house is where the heart is.
It is not merely in the use of imagery of common life, not merely in the use of imagery of the … great metropolis, but in the elevation of such imagery to the first intensity - presenting it as it is, and yet making it represent something much more than itself.45
Dean Bowen's urban world reinforces our urban 'self'. It is a knowable world, even a comforting, institutionalised one, yet he manages to bring into play the paradox that even when an individual is part of a greater group, where one unit is inextricably an essential component of a large, social composition, there nevertheless remains a sense of isolation. The idea of loneliness within such a homogenous existence again confirms the position of the outsider in society, and in Bowen's world of urban conformity, the creative outsider looms as a palpable soul disconnected from the mass. But even the outsider knows the necessity of their own private world, where their instinctual will can reside unchallenged. Bowen's watercolour Tower of song, 2007, is a splendid metaphor for supreme happiness, but it can also be seen as an effervescent cathedral, a residence of the self, where one finds inspiration, or views a bird on the roof or on a wall, or where we see the owl in a tree-top and wonder whether it epitomes placid contemplation or wise patience.
On the other hand, the driver on the open road in the middle of the countryside at night, or a nocturnal echidna, the country dog or farmer, or even the city 'rough nuts' driving along in their hot vehicle, each knows the necessity of the journey, it is as important as the desired destination, the house or the home. Dean Bowen has finely tuned this emotional relay between the vulnerability of an individual and his or her pursuit of happiness, be it within the claustrophobic density of the urban sprawl or the near silence of a rural landscape. His insistence on repetitive combinations in a world of mass commodities only serves to accentuate a desire for autonomy. This seems to be the root or basis for all physical and spiritual survival, a human necessity, where one validates the other.
Dr Sheridan Palmer is a curator, art historian and Fellow of the Australian Centre, University of Melbourne.
© Dr Sheridan Palmer, 2009
1 Ortega Y Gasset, The Dehumanisation of Art, p. 22
2 Read in Paul Klee on Modern Art, p. 6
3 Dubuffet quoted in Jean Dubuffet 1943–1963, p. 8
4 Nathan-Neher, Chaissac, p. 9
5 Weiss, Shattered Forms, p. 3
6 Henry Adams quoted in Colour Codes, p. 18
7 The company F. Bowen and Sons was owned by Joe Bowen's father Fred and four of his sons for 40 years, and operated extensively throughout Victoria and interstate.
8 Bowen quoted in Extending Printmaking, p. 81
9 McCulloch, Dean Bowen, p. 8
10 Bowen's title The drift of stars, comes from T. S. Eliot's poem 'Burnt Norton', in 'Four Quartets'.
11 Levi-Strauss, Totemism, p. 54
12 See Redon's 'charcoal drawing 'Cactus Man', 1881.
13 Barthes, Mythologies, p. 53
14 Cited in McCaughey, Voyage and Landfall, p. 96
15 Zolberg and Maya Cherbo, (eds), Outsider Art, p. 3
16 Franzke, Dubuffet, p. 10
17 Dubuffet quoted in Jean Planque 'A Reminiscence', Jean Dubuffet 1943–1963, p. 35
18 Schjeldahl, '1942 and After', p. 15
19 Leveson quoted in Good Weekend, p. 55.
20 Between 1988 and 1994 the artist created 154 editions (etchings and lithographs) at the Australian Print Workshop.
21 Bowen, Printmaking – A Project, p. 1
22 See http://mourlot.free.fr/fmintroenglish.html
23 Bowen, conversation with author, July 2008.
24 Bowen, notes to the author, 23 July 2008.
26 Dubuffet, J., Prospectus aux amateurs de tout genre, p. 53, in Bowen, Extending Printmaking, p. 126
27 Bowen, Extending Printmaking, p. 126
28 Bowen recorded this data for his PhD thesis.
29 Quoted in Bowen, Extending Printmaking, p. 37
30 Bowen, notes to author, July 2008.
31 Bowen, Up Close, 2000.
32 Stéphane Jacob, Director of Arts d'Australie was instrumental in Bowen's inclusion and in the organisation of the exhibition.
33 See Hal Foster on Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon, 'The 'Primitive' Unconscious of Modern Art', in Frascina and Harris, Art in Modern Culture, p. 199
34 Nathan-Neher, Chaissac, p. 36
35 Sylvester, 'Giacometti', in About Modern Art, p. 53
36 Cooke, Dubuffet 1943-1963, p. 28
37 Bowen, Sunday Programme, 1998.
38 Weiss, Shattered Forms, p. 46
39 Ibid, pp. 15–16
40 This tapestry was commissioned by the City of Melbourne. See Bowen, Extending Printmaking, p. 71
41 Bowen, Extending Printmaking, p. 76
42 Bowen, Extending printmaking, p. 27
43 Snell, Fremantle Print Award, p. 6
44 Kotlarz, 'In Betweening', in Art History, p. 25
45 Matthiessen, T. S. Eliot, p. 18