Dean Bowen, 55, had what he describes as a classic country upbringing in Maryborough where he fished for redfin and trout with his father, made toast over an open fire with his mother before school, rode his bike all over the place and, when he was old enough, did the local paper round. Much time was also spent at his grandmother's who had so many pets - and birds - it was like visiting a zoo or aviary.
Inspired by many art teachers at his local secondary school, in particular Neil Leveson and Wes Lancaster, he knew from his early teens that he wanted to be an artist and, at 17, headed for the city to study at RMIT where he specialised in printmaking before incorporating painting and later sculpture.
It is not surprising, therefore, that major themes Bowen constantly visits include the city, the country, the suburbs, the human figure, birds, other animals, night skies, the working person and self-portraits. Just as he absorbed the elements of the country as a child, he continues to embrace a child-like optimism about his immediate environment and beyond.
"I am regularly working on six to eight themes, still working things out and the best way to say it and be open to chance and growth. All my work is a mix of things that come from any direction... prints become sculptures, sculptures become paintings or the other way around. I am constantly developing ideas this way. Ideas cascade from one thing to another, " he says.
A full-time artist since 1989, Bowen's career spans three decades and includes exhibiting at major commercial galleries in Australia and at Galerie Miyawaki, Kyoto, Japan, since 1995. He has held survey exhibitions in Japan and at leading regional galleries in Victoria. He has held solo exhibitions with galleries in London, Paris, Geneva and Tokyo.
The earlier prints in the exhibition such as Country Girl (1997) and Country Boy (1997) reveal how Bowen uses the human face as his stage. Using acid to etch facial images onto copper plates, which he'd use and re-use, he created what he calls "scars" in the surface. The recent lithograph, Bird with a Heart-Shaped Leaf (2012), displays a painted texture on the surface of the bird's portly body creating a mottled illusion of rugged material on what is, in fact, a very flat surface.
The bird is a prominent theme in the artist's work. Bowen became interested in the subject matter when he used to work from his home-based studio 10 years ago listening to the tick tack sounds they made as they skipped along the roof. His birds deliberately border on the absurd they're so delightfully quirky. "They are sometimes actually people, ideas about the world as I see it explored through the imagery of birds, but they're not just birds," Bowen explains.
Giant Treecreeper with Millepede (2011), a large- scale oil painting, for instance, depicts an enormous bird with fragile stick legs with a leaf in its mouth and a millepede on its beak. A flightless quirky bird, a friend of the millepede? Or, perhaps, the bird's next meal? Always interested in the merging of the enormous with the miniature and fragile, Bowen often mixes sand with the oil paint to create the highly- textured surface he is renowned for.
One of his most recent bronze sculptures, Bird Lover (2012) renders a young man with three birds resting on each arm. The man's outstretched arms hearken back to early observations he made of children pretending to be aeroplanes which culminated in the permanently sited bronze Aeroplane Boy (2003) at Heide Museum of Modern Art's Sculpture Park which won the People's Choice Award at the Helen Lempriere National Sculpture Award in 2003. Bowen explains the recurrent image of outstretched arms signifies "the embrace, the welcoming and freedom of this world". "In Bird Lover the birds are free to fly away but choose to rest," he says.
Citing major influences as the art of French painter, Jean Dubuffet, who embraced the art of children, the humour of Spanish sculptor, Joan Miro, and the stick- like figures of Swiss artist, Alberto Giacometti, Bowen is also drawn to the work of naive artists, untrained artists and the drawings of children.
Bowen lives a focussed, uncompromising life recreating the world as he sees it. Five days a week he drives from his inner-city home in Balaclava in his 1995 Commodore to outer Melbourne to his studio, a former radiator factory sandwiched between an auto electrician and a car parts manufacturer, where there's no heating and a fan to combat the summer heat. CDs there comprise the standard baby boomer fare - The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Mozart, Beethoven and Bach.
That daily drive has inspired a whole series of urban images focussing on traffic. His large 153cm by 183cm oil on linen Day by Day (2010) is a geometric tapestry of trucks, cars, wagons and ambulances bordered by suburban iconography of house upon house and tree upon tree. It's ordered chaos, rhythmically capturing the pulse of suburbia and commuter life.
Sculptures commissioned by Hobson's Bay City Council for McCormack Park, Laverton, called Bus, Car and Walking Man (2010) similarly explore the same theme in a different medium. With a brief to depict sustainable travel behaviours, the works comprise a life-size man walking, a bus chockablock with public transport users and an elongated car, packed to the rafters, with people sharing a car pool.
Lover's Driving Home, the 2004 oil on board, an important work in the show, has, in contrast, a contemplative edge where heads of a couple are visible in a car returning home. The roadside trees, the paddock, the sky and clouds are naively depicted. This is where Bowen's art becomes knife- edge - in his ability to reflect on the everyday through simple form, style and content - and in doing so make it extraordinary.
The 1995 etching, The Rough Nuts, the earliest work on exhibit, is thematically in sharp contrast, centering on two rogues behind the wheel, with over-sized peanut-shaped heads and shabby stubble on their cocky chins. Again the form is so simple it resounds.
The lovers and 'rough nuts' are a mesh of city and country influences, a dichotomy, Bowen admits, is inevitable. "Aspects of country and city living are often reflected in my work." The monumental bronze Cat (2012), based on the maquette of Cat (2004) and commissioned by Wyndham City Council and installed at the Wyndham Vale Community Learning Centre in June this year, is a case in point. Its bulbous body, whiskers and tail echo an affluence where food is too plentiful; on the other hand, its street-wise, yet happy-go-lucky disposition, exudes an unashamed freedom, perhaps that of country life.
The bronze titled Small Farmer (2007) was inspired by Bowen's large sculpture, The Farmer (2007), which was commissioned by the City of Greater Shepparton in 2007 and installed in the renovated showgrounds there. Here we see the farmer, a recurring symbol in Bowen's work, a proud, upstanding figure looking straight ahead, hands open ready for work to begin, the bucket at his feet full of fruit symbolising the efforts of his labour.
The bronze, Lady with Flowers, (2001) depicts a woman offering flowers. This maquette was the inspiration for a monumental 400 kilogram bronze of the same name commissioned by arts/ACT and installed in the suburb of Gungahlin, Canberra, in February this year.
Bowen's work is about real things - the every day - an adventure with no beginning, middle or end. Often devoid of morality or judgement, a story of precious moments captured in colourful places and sites.
Louise Bellamy July 2012.
Louise Bellamy has written about the visual arts for The Age newspaper for more than 20 years.