by Judith Trimble
May 1999 - Australian Galleries - Bronze Sculpture 1995-99
Sculpture provides Dean Bowen with increased expressive options for his art. In 1995, looking for a more tangible presence than he was finding in two-dimensional work, he began to experiment with three-dimensional works in bronze.
Serious driver, 1995, is the first of these bronzes. It was soon followed by The Flyers, Man with a hat, and Echinda on my head in the same year. In 1997 came The little man (ironically, larger than Man with a hat), Owl on my head, and Boy with Birds. The subjects for these are familiar, taken directly from his own etchings with surprisingly little modification to the imagery. Even the intricately layered textures of the etchings are evoked by rich patterning and deliberately uneven surfaces in bronze; and the images share the same ready humour, as of a good-natured family. Alert, wide-eyed and attentive, with hands spread open and 'growing into their shoes', these figures have the unpretentiousness of country school chums, and are imbued with the natural optimism which characterises Bowen's art. His sculpture, Man waving, 1998, has inspired a new image for a two-dimensional work.
Some sculptures, such as Vertical portrait, 1996, and Echidna on my head, 1995, are also self-portraits, making reference to the artist's famous spiky hair. Even the earnest driver, too big for his car, has been likened to Bowen's habit of driving 'seriously', whilst recalling his 'dodgem' car days at local fair grounds. The owl, which refers to wisdom and may be traced to school days when Bowen and his classmates fashioned owls in terracotta, was at first a response to Birds tapping on the studio's tin roof. Notions of balance between right and wrong, good and evil, are weighed in Boy with Birds, as in the traditional symbol of 'Virtue' holding the scales of justice but without its formality.
Bowen expresses process in his sculpture as in his works on paper, eschewing the refined surface, and exploiting the bronze casting technique. Whilst he 'finishes' his surfaces, ridding them of unwanted roughness, he treats them as 'landscapes': necessarily uneven, their small undulations polished and patinated to express individuality and a certain 'life force'. Working from wax models built around wire armatures, he builds the figures as self-supporting objects without stands, the familiar large feet now forming functional bases.
Several sculptors have been inspirational for Bowen. In 1993 he saw a major Alberto Giacometti retrospective in Paris and was captivated by the power of his sculpture. One work, a portrait of the artist's brother, appeared as a drawing from the frontal edge and a broad plane in the profile view. It led to the vertical heads in Bowen's monoprints and was a precedent for the bronze Vertical portrait, 1996. He feels a special empathy with Jean Dubuffet's work and the liberation, the limitless possibilities he proposed for art. The humour of Miro's sculpture and Picasso's inventiveness were also influential.
Shared influences and ideals, developed in the prints and small sculptures, culminate in the grand figure of The big little man, cast in 1999 with the support of Fundere Fine Art Foundry. More than two metres square, it was built up to scale in clay from the small bronze, The Me man. The head, which is as broad as the body, is treated as 'the earth', reading like an intricate landscape with hills and hollows and even traces of the model's armature; while the wide-brimmed hat is a conscious landscape study in its own right. In February, The big little man was installed briefly at Station Pier and Victoria Dock to be photographed. He drew rapturous responses from a surprised public who rubbed his surfaces, fingered his depressions, hugged him, and photographed themselves in his company.
© Judith Trimble, May 1999
Judith Trimble teaches art history in the School of Architecture and Building at Deakin University.