A Jar of Stars
At night looking up at the stars, sprinkles of light here and there, I remember my country dog, running fast, jet black. The great adventures through the bush, discovering echidnas, ants, rabbits and birds. Lizards under a log. Angry magpies swooping country kids, maybe a peck on the head. Fat dog wanting to chase a ball Even way back then, I remember, covered in freckles, thinking about all the characters. Red hair, curly, odd-shaped teeth, the lucky ones and others not so lucky. Pets near by. Faces shaped, telling stories about the sort of person anyone might be.
Dean Bowen's bewitching characters twinkle with charm and personality. Whether sourced from memories of growing up in country Victoria, or informed by the experiences of living in the hustle and bustle of an urban city, his canvases, works on paper and sculptures are imbued with whimsy and an enduring appeal.
Many of Bowen's canvases and prints align with traditions of portraiture where 'by the face ye shall know the heart.' For instance Mr Wonderful's beaming smile communicates a joyous soul, while Night face, 2003, a self portrait, is affable but also introspective. Like most virtuosos, Bowen's portraits are deceptively simple. The paintings are pared back to their essential elements: form is abstracted, perspective is flattened and the palette is often restricted to amplified hues of jewel-like colours. Character is conveyed in the simplest of gestures: the placement of an eye, the curve of a form, the angle of a line.
Many portraits feature animals from Bowen's past and present. By making these humble creatures the subject of a portrait, he elevates them to an equal plane. However rather than depict a bird or a dog, Bowen creates a portrait of an individual. Each has a personality as varied as their human counterparts. Birds populate many of his canvases. He turned his attention to them following their habit of disturbing him by scampering on the tin roof of his studio. The tic-tac noise of their scuttling broke the artist's concentration. However rather than convey his annoyance at their intrusion, Bowen's birds are winsome, cheeky, even flirtatious and radiate an exuberance for life. In one canvas, Perched Bird with Twig, 2002 a bulbous bird perches on a stick thin branch threatening to break it with his impossible weight. He grins with pleasure at his defiance of physics.
Bowen's compositions are typically tightly framed around the torso or face. This brings his animal friends close to the picture plane, insisting on a face to face encounter with the viewer. Birds, bats, cats and dogs stare back at us inviting us into an intimate relationship, entreating us to become their friends. Bowen's work is informed by an understanding of the fragility of nature and this plays out in his work in the range of beguiling expressions that appeal to our better instincts. For instance Pensive penguin, 2011, depicts a somewhat bewildered fellow who captivates the viewer with his perplexed gaze. Over fifty bird species have become extinct in Australia since European settlement and four species of Australian penguins are listed as vulnerable on the Australian government threatened species website. Pensive penguin is aptly named. His beseeching expression encourages us to think more considerately of the creatures we share the planet with.
An environmental message can be seen beneath many of Bowen's works. While drivers happily ensconced in bubble cars hum up and down the bitumen arteries of suburban streets, the whirling vortex of roads and traffic humorously suggest the madness of it all. For instance the painting Bouchon, 2008, French for bottleneck, depicts the thrum of urban life. In this painting pockets of congested houses nestle together while clipped trees stand to attention on handkerchiefs of land. The road cuts and divides creating both order and its own form of chaos ferrying cars, trucks and buses on their journey. The voracious appetite of urban car culture is wittily expressed in Urbanology, 1995, an early etching inspired by the artist's daily commute in the stop-start traffic along Punt Road in Richmond. Depicted with snapping bonnets, reminiscent of crocodiles, irritably biting at the bumper of the car infront, the work encapsulates the impatience at the heart of urban life.
In contrast there is a peaceful spaciousness in Bowen's rural scenes. A vast expanse of land sits beneath a canopy of streaky white clouds in paintings such as, Northbound, 2006. Instead of the loneliness of country roads, the solitary car captures the freedom that driving on the open road can bring. A number of works turn a spotlight on the drivers themselves as they shuttle from place to place: a distracted mother and children, the local hoons, a resolute chap focused intently on the road ahead. According to the artist travelling in cars is a form of journey that provides a chance to observe the passing parade of landscape and humanity. 'The journey acts as a symbol, both physically and psychologically, taking us 'beyond ourselves, enhancing and reminding us of the preciousness of life.'**
It is Bowen's nocturnal scenes however, that best capture a sense of wonder at the world. For instance in the large canvas, Metempirical, 2011, a shooting star on its arched trajectory streaks across a night sky. Flickering stars dot the sky and the beginnings of dawn wake the horizon. The magic of life is poetically conveyed in such fleeting moments. By directing our attention to such ephemeral joys, Bowen alerts us to the marvels of life all around, thereby soliciting our protection of the earth upon which we live.
Dr Wendy Garden
Maroondah Art Gallery
*Dean Bowen, Personnages et animaux, artist book, 1996
**Dean Bowen, Journey, exhibition catalogue, Galerie Miyawaki, Kyoto, 2005