Bowling does not work in a true fresco mode--she uses oil and allows the spackle to dry before working on it -but her process achieves the romantic, textural surface of fresco. After applying the paint, she can incise it, rub or sand it. Color soaks deep in the material while the surface retains memory of the marks. Bowling encourages chance in her work so imperfections, bubbles or random configurations caused by sanding or rubbing may suggest shapes, stars or pricks of light that figure into the final painting.
Another way of exploiting accident is with Polaroids. Bowling uses photography the way earlier artists made on-site studies, as a quick way of recording composition and light. What she particularly likes about Polaroids is the imperfect color, the out-of-focus quality and the possibility of accident from the emulsion or flash, imperfections she often incorporates into her final interpretation. Early on, Bowling worked almost exclusively from Polaroids—taking hundreds of pictures as preliminary studies. Beginning in 1992, she relied less on photography, sometimes working from life and other times allowing the paint and spackle to determine the structure of the painting.
Important to Bowling's development was Plantation, 1987 the earliest work in this exhibition. It began a process of seeing nature both in terms of landscape and for its abstract, formal qualities. Here, one looks down a road near Richmond, Virginia along the James River. Trees line a dirt road; there is a bit of sky in the distance. The mood is bucolic, the scene is classic and timeless, perhaps unchanged since pre-Civil War days; yet what interests Bowling are not the narrative aspects, but the abstract elements that make up the painting, in this case, the triangles of color converging in the distance and the illusion of light seeping through the surface.
The painting also heralded a breakthrough in technique. Truth to materials is an important philosophical component of her work. The first time Bowling used spackle on a large scale, she became aware of how she could manipulate it to achieve her conceptual goals. As she notes in Plantation for example, "light comes through the left hand side of the painting and rests on the road in the foreground where the painting has been sanded down. It's light but it's also comprised of paint and spackle and drips and marks and chance. It works on many levels." (2)
As Bowling looked to nature for inspiration, she became intrigued not only by variances in the formation and growth of trees, but how an artist manipulates the viewer's perception. After the road paintings in Virginia, she spent a summer in upstate New York where she painted a series of trees. Finding herself in the same location the next year, she wanted to give a different twist to the same subject. Having looked at a number of photographs by the Russian photographer Alexander Rodchenko, she was especially intrigued by his unconventional cropping of photographs, particularly the odd-angle perspective of looking up the trunk.
Bowling's variation of this worm's eye view of nature was Top, 1989, which, in terms of abstract components is surprisingly close to Plantation. The view up the trunk simulates the path of the road, drawing the viewer into the painting through the use of perspective. Yet, the result is much more disorienting because this pathway, instead of vanishing on the horizon line, takes the viewer up and into the sky.
Crossed Shadows, 1990, was painted the following year in the same wooded area of New York state. Having "looked down the road, at the trees and up the trees," Bowling now looked at their shadows. Here the influence of the Impressionists, concerned with the fleeting effects of the sun, is apparent. The Impressionists painted en plein air to capture the ever-changing atmosphere of nature. Bowling's approach was more literal; to make her preliminary drawings she actually laid the paper on the ground, tracing the shifting light and changing shadows of the indistinct and ephemeral shapes of the trees. It was a way of bringing something new to the same subject.
Light and the reflection of light is an ongoing source of fascination for Bowling. After Crossed Shadows, she did a number of paintings that dealt with reflections of trees and water, among them Twilight, 1989, and Rotation, 1990. Bowling was drawn to these scenes for a number of reasons. Again, it was another way of looking at trees, this time as they were reflected in the water. At the same time, as with the differences and similarities between what is happening visually in Plantation and Top, the scenes play with the viewer's perception between illusion and reality.
This play of illusion and reality is particularly apparent in Memorial, 1991, where Bowling has painted double images but treats them exactly the same, so it is impossible to determine which are the trees and which are reflections. In Divided Pond, 1991, Bowling found herself drawn repeatedly to the perfection of a particular pond and subsequently has made more than ten paintings and drawings of it. In one of those serendipitous instances that speak to memory and mystery, Bowling later came across a painting that she did as a child of a body of water almost identical to Divided Pond.
Having divided the pond down the middle, the artist alters the realignment slightly so the two sides do not quite match up. The perfection of the circle and the symmetry of the grasses is subtly nullified in a way that is virtually imperceptible to the viewer. The viewpoint has shifted, as if movement has occurred. In this way, Bowling questions perception, presenting the changes that occur as the viewer interacts with the landscape. This repetition of images has its sources both in nature and technology. Reflections, of course, occur naturally in the landscape. The side by side repetition of images also has to do with Bowling's interest in the stereograph, a device in which the viewer peers through binocular type glasses at two adjacent pictures, giving the illusion of depth.
Trilogy, 1990, presents an interesting study of Bowling's progression of thought through the landscape. Beginning with a single Polaroid image of trees in nature, Bowling repeats the image three times across two panels. The image changes through repetition. The result, an overall composition that is much more abstract than realistic, surprises the viewer, who knows they are looking at a depiction of nature that could not possibly occur in nature.
Heat, 1990, is not as much a specific viewpoint of the landscape as it is a portrayal of atmosphere, in this case, the ineffable quality of shimmering heat on a hot southern day. It is fitting that one of the inspirations for this painting was Study for the Trunk of an Elm Tree, 1821 by John Constable; yet interestingly, Bowling was looking not at one of his atmospheric paintings but a close-up of a tree. Although this is obviously a tree, Bowling leaves out the most telling part, offering a fragmentary view of a line that becomes the tree trunk.
The viewer is given a slice of nature, but must fill in the rest. This, for Bowling, is the essence of this painting—how the mind fills in what is not there.
This move toward abstraction, which also corresponds with a lessening dependence on the Polaroids, progresses through Line Up, 1991, Fall, 1992 and Tapestry, 1993, as Bowling even more consciously allows the paint to direct the composition and even the subject of the painting. For example, in her search for ways to portray sources of light, Bowling was doing extensive surface work in Line Up. The gesture of washing and sanding away the paint left residues of green that resembled leaves and branches to which Bowling, in a visual free association, added the trunks. Although created via the same method, the nostalgic beauty of Fall, reminiscent of James McNeill Whistler's nocturnes, evokes an entirely different mood than Line Up.
Tapestry takes the notion of abstraction even further as the drips of paint set up a pattern that recalls a minimalist grid as much as it does a close-up weave of trees. Here, the light beckons from deep within the painting. In retrospect, Tapestry was more of a harbinger of Bowling's evolution than one might have imagined. For the past year, she has brought the viewer in for even a closer look at icons of country living -nests, bird houses, snowmen, and jack-o-lanterns. Nest (#2), 1994, is a beautiful synthesis of realism and abstraction in which not only the subject matter is presented on a magnified scale, but the scratches, drips and drops of paint are celebrated for what they are—the marks of the artist. Though coming from the same conceptual base, the journey from Plantation to Nest (#2) is considerable.
It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, "Everything in Nature contains all the powers of Nature. Everything is made of one hidden stuff."(3) The roads are metaphors for life's journey; the water can be seen as representing the subconscious; the nest a symbol of the home. Some paintings evoke feelings associated with a universal memory of a season, mood or a specific time of day while others represent a psychological space, or barrier metaphorically separating the conscious from the unconscious mind. Bowling seems to know this intuitively, for it is in the act of painting the landscape that she transcends it, primarily because she is concerned with portraying the intangible, or the "hidden stuff."
This awe of nature dates back to one of Bowling's earliest thoughts of the outdoors, when as a child she remembers being "transfixed by nature and a perfect moment of light that was tangible." And though she takes her inspiration from nature, she finds her resolution in the medium.
Curator of Contemporary American Art
1. For example, the paintings of Thomas Moran and Frederick Church often served as records of what they had seen in their travels to exotic or faraway places.
2. All quotes are from an interview between the artist and author January 17, 1994.
3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Compensation," Essays, First Series, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1886, p. 98.