Essay by Robert Lindsay
McClelland Sculpture Survey 2014, Catalogue
Dean Bowen was born in Maryborough, Victoria, in 1957, where he experienced 'a classic country upbringing' that encompassed close contact with nature, including animals in the wild and on farms. Frequent visits to his grandmother who had so many pets, particularly birds, that Bowen recalls it was 'like visiting a zoo or aviary', was another formative influence. This love of country life and its contrast with the city has remained a continuing inspiration and provides Bowen with a rich source of themes for his prints, paintings and sculptures. There is an easy commerce between his printmaking, painting and sculpture with themes and images, initially urban and later environmental, transposed into these various disciplines. Bowen's work is underpinned by his memories and acute observations of the world around him, and his quirky two-dimensional images of animals and personages resonate with an acute Australian edge and humour.
Dean Bowen decided to become an artist at an early age, and in 1974 he headed for Melbourne and enrolled at RMIT. After graduating in 1976 with a Diploma of Printmaking, he travelled to Europe, Japan, Egypt and USA. He became a full-time artist in 1989. Bowen made three trips to France in the early 1990s working with various printmaking Ateliers. In Paris he visited the 1993 retrospective exhibition of Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), a sculptor noted for his attenuated, ethereal figures reduced to a flat profile where the line of the silhouette and the textured surface dominates over three-dimensionality.
Bowen particularly admired the combination of the flatness of the sculptures and the three-dimensionality of the drawing in Giacometti's work, which he studied in depth; as well as that of his younger brother, Diego Giacometti (1902-1985), who created a series of whimsical, stylised animal bronzes. The sense of flatness and linearity observed in Alberto Giacometti's works became the hallmark of Bowen's sculptures, while his subject matter is more akin to Diego's animal works, in which a linear framework enabled the addition of figurative elements to create an implied narrative. For example, Dean Bowen's sculpture Landscape with echidna and birds 2013, has elements of Diego's vocabulary having been translated into an Australian context.
The stylised, frontal, graphic conventions of Ancient Egyptian art also resonated with Bowen and were adapted, first in his graphic works, then in paintings, and finally, sculpture. Today, he frequently utilises one medium to explore ideas, before expressing them in another. "I am regularly working on six to eight themes, still working things out and the best way to say it, and being open to chance and growth. Ideas cascade from one thing to another.”
An additional influence on Bowen was the work of the French painter and sculptor, Fernand Leger (1881-1955). The graphic, Cubist-derived style of Leger, often seen as proto Pop Art, appealed to him, particularly Leger's geometric overlays of primary colours on stylised, black cylindrical armatures of figures and objects, referred to as the 'mechanical style'. Bowen related to the graphic nature of Leger's tubular and machine-like forms with their simplified geometry, but also philosophically, to the depiction of the working class person.
While in Europe Bowen also looked in depth at the work of Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985), the French painter and sculptor who was instrumental in expanding his vision beyond the confines of printmaking, to include all the disciplines of the visual arts. Dubuffet coined the term Art Brut (often referred to as 'raw art' or 'outsider art') to promote an art outside the traditional boundaries of established art and aesthetics. Striving for more authentic image-making, Dubuffet included under the banner of Art Brut, the self-taught, the naïve art of the 'innocent eye', and art from extreme mental and fantasy worlds.
Bowen's admiration and empathy for the expressive quality of Dubuffet's work had begun early when he was experimenting with abstraction at art school, and in response to Dubuffet he soon added figurative elements to his works to provide a sense of social content. The expansion of what was appropriate to be considered art, lay at the basis of Art Brut, and this continued to have great appeal for Bowen. Direct acquaintance with Dubuffet's work in Europe thus gave Bowen renewed confidence to pursue his own vision, and on returning to Australia he expanded his practice and concepts.
Another formative influence on Bowen was the French outsider artist Gaston Chaissac (1910- 1964). A naïve artist, dubbed a 'rustic-modern', Chaissac is erroneously often associated with the Art Brut movement. Chaissac had a creative wild approach to art, with a free and spontaneous style. He created numerous pen-and-ink drawings, gouaches, watercolours, oil paintings, collages and unusual three-dimensional works. Also a tireless experimenter, Chaissac worked with a great variety of unconventional materials including rocks, cardboard, wallpaper, leather, furniture, tree stumps and planks of wood. It was studying Chaissac's creative approach to art through different techniques, and in particular his assemblages and paintings on discarded linoleum that helped attract Bowen to sculpture.
Bowen had flirted with Pop Art at RMIT, experimenting with the style and embracing the notion of contemporary non-'high art' subjects. His focus became everyday urban life, expanded to include his early country upbringing and love the nature. In the 1980s this admiration was heightened through the work of the American Pop artist, Keith Haring (1958-1990), whose street art captured the protest spirit of the 1980s with graphic images and ideograms of sex, death and war. Bowen admired the currency of the communication and the simple graphic style of figuration within endless linear labyrinths and abstract patterns resonated with his own approach.
During 1994-5 Bowen began experimenting with making sculptures from found objects. It was during this time that he produced his first bronze, Serious Driver 1995, a small sculpture of a man driving a car, which sprang from his memories of driving along the highway from Melbourne to Maryborough, as well as daily journeys from home to the studio. Hereafter, his interest in casting in bronze intensified.
Bowen's first bronze sculptures were essentially flat, frontal works that emphasised a graphic silhouette, intentionally echoing the qualities of his prints. One of the largest of these frontal sculptures to date is Aeroplane Boy 2003, (Heide Museum of Modern Art) which won the people's choice award in the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award of 2003. Bowen's quirky subject matter and the graphic lines and patterns on the surface of his sculptures communicate on a pictorial, almost cartoon level. Humour, to view the world with a sense of optimism, is Dean Bowen's overwhelming philosophical stance. As an artist he aims to create empathetic communication and to resonate culturally through his art.
Animals have been central throughout Bowen's oeuvre. He imbues them with anthropomorphic qualities, giving them personalities that have broad appeal. Bowen refers to his McClelland Survey work Echidna 2013, as a personal totemic image, the reference being to his own spiky hair, a distinguishing trait from childhood. It is a fitting reminder that his art is innately personal, that it springs from his memories, while also drawing on his immediate environment.