Tonal, vibrant, syncopated and rhythmic, Dean Bowen celebrates the aesthetics of life in the city as a composer would write a musical score symbolizing the noises of the urbanized world. His houses are the regular beats of the urban heartland, the streets are the veins of the metropolis, and his quirky vehicles are the moving cells feeding the freeways and networks of the city corpus. The effect is a humanizing one of a landscape all too often portrayed as hostile, environmentally polluted and chaotic.
Absorbing the visual features of Bowen's society, we find an artist who has developed a symbolic language for the simple pleasures of human habitation within the artificial and the natural world. There is a balance, a remarkable energy and a humble, utopian interaction between the inanimate and the living. Iconic structures combined with the intensity of colour representative of Australian landscapes have developed over a period of some twenty years and form a language as distinctive of urban and country life as that of other major artists who have explored similar environments. Artists such as Rover Thomas, Ginger Riley, Bruce Armstrong, Jan Senbergs, Rick Amor, Fred Williams spring to mind. Moreover, Bowen's art emerges from and radiates back towards an organic base, an art that 'is reflected life, nature seen through temperament, representation of human destinies'.* Destinies and destination is an important part of Bowen's narrative. Vehicles flow along motorways; cars head towards the horizon, they are going somewhere; a comet slashes through the night sky, a tear in the blackness of space, yet it is travelling somewhere or will return another year; the boy with the owl is quietly pleased at acquiring knowledge. Always there is an over-riding optimism that suppresses any indication of melancholy or disunity. Order, it seems will prevail, whether it is social order or the natural order of things.
Juggling the mediums of painting, sculpture and printmaking, Bowen finds one medium feeds ideas that will be better expressed in another. This is the long awaited reward that belongs to the artist who works full time at his profession. Creating in various mediums has greatly assisted with the evolution of Bowen's iconography, which is sympathetic to numerous sources including the intuitive and elemental structures of outsider, child or primitive art. However, Bowen also revisits and repossesses themes and ideas created years ago. His paintings of Birds, begun in 1998, habitually seek new species that gently shift a simple yet powerful narrative or theme towards the extension of an idea. The pure colours pierce, attract and challenge and the largesse of the Bird's body is abstraction in its most poetically, simple form, ovoid, a living organism, an avian continent. The Bird's eye transforms into a target, a nucleus or an embryonic source, recalling the very essence of nature and the instinctual will of survival of a species. This is the complexity caught within Bowen's oeuvre as he calls nature for what it is, Yet embodied in that truth lies the duality of existence where the sublime is the fellow traveler of reality, where the smallness and fragility of human endeavor must be measured by the magnitude of space and the infinitesimal notion of existence.
Several qualities are readily observed in Bowen's art. The raw, luminosity of colour intensifies our attraction to the images whether it is the density of the black and its velvety, sensual quality, or the sheer brilliance of the reds. Bowen uses colour to both seduce and challenge, and it is this confidence that distinguishes Bowen as one of the most masterful of printmakers and painters working in Australia today. The textured impasto of the paint or the tactility of the sculptural surface are methodologies concerned as much with the image as with the directional flow and structure of the form. Bowen's sculptures appear as two dimensional, a more tangible and textured Giacometti-like, 'crumpled beer can' effect and relate strongly to his printmaking images. Like all sculpture, it has the physical presence of command, and we sense that the purpose of the narrative, whether it is of a boy with a house and a tree or the self portrait, is of a more personal nature. Children grow up, but memories accompany us forever.
The purposeful and ordered images in Bowen's art creates values that are relevant to our everyday, local world but are also implicit in our knowledge of the greater structures of the universal world. Dean Bowen's art reminds us of the simple qualities of life as well as those important issues at the heart of the matter.
© Dr Sheridan Palmer, August 2006
Dr Sheridan Palmer is a curator, art historian and Fellow of the Australian Centre, University of Melbourne.
* Ortega Y Gasset, New York, The Dehumanization of Art and other Writings on Art and Culture, Doubleday Anchor Books, p. 22.