Painter Graham Fowler’s explorations of water, its descriptive, formal behaviours and its cultural and its even metaphysical meanings, tend to honour above all the mystery of, the primacy of its surfaces (the title of this exhibition is “Water and the Impermanence of Surface”).
In painting after painting, the Saskatchewan-based artist movingly acknowledges and valorizes the transformative power of that strange, essentially inexplicable plane of division at which the world we were born to inhabit—the pillowy, world-around cushion of air, our atmosphere—is suddenly juxtaposed to a world we cannot easily inhabit, the water-world of alien airlessness. In pushing down through the water’s surface, everything turns into its opposite: air becomes the deprivation of air, sunlight becomes fleeting and dwindles into darkness and cold. Life forms are reconfigured in water, and all the rules change.
We fancy that because we are largely made up of water, because we drink water, cook with it, swim in it, pollute it and, if we are careless, drown in it, that we know all about it. But if we were to pay serious attention to water, transcending its sentimentalized scenic aspects the way Graham Fowler does, it would lead us directly to realms of great mystery.
For Fowler, water is profoundly, mysteriously alive. It is dynamic, evanescent, elusive, always passing before us. And yet, as in a painting, for example, or in a photograph, water can be stilled and contemplated by our ordering imaginations. By mentally rendering water motionless—which is central to Graham Fowler’s work—we can thereby come to see it as pure idea.
That idea can be an underwater idea, a revelatory in-depth immersion such as Fowler first experienced when he went scuba diving in 2002 in Roatan, Honduras. Here, he notes, a camera became his sketchbook, providing him with “a verifiable image of moments of nature that are fleeting.” His camera-sketchbook has continued to generate deep-water images that evoke and galvanize experiences that, as he puts it, are “rooted in memory and the body.”
Fowler’s exquisite series of fish paintings, for example—works like Ghost Koi from 2006 and Fish Fantastic from 2007-9—are not just piscatorial anecdotes but are, rather, exotic incarnations of what might be termed the terrain of an underwater nethermind, a rich metaphorical realm which, animated by Fowler’s beautiful vector-like fish, feels like the site of the unconscious, that vivid, teeming, submerged world we can more easily muse upon than actually visit.
Fowler’s waterworld clearly assumes two modes: the first is the world of undersea deeps; the second is the more frequently accessible world of water-observed-from-dry-land.
But when Fowler is standing beside a stream-bank or waterfall, observing what James Joyce once referred to as the “hithering, thithering waters,” he is no mere tourist with a scenic brush. Fowler’s streams and waterfalls, rivers and rivulets, are just as fully the stuff of perceptual immersion as are his undersea works.
In landscape after landscape (riverscape after streamscape after waterfallscape), the artist offers not views of lambent, anecdotal, “literary” water—the stuff of mere decor—but rather water meticulously observed and analyzed from beside it and from above it. His eye is everywhere.
Fowler has written that he is “a participant observer in nature, but also an independent creator.” Much of this creative “independence” has to do with an observing of the world of water that is so insistent and acute that it results in the abstraction of it. In recent paintings like Drop Off, Water and Organic Life in Motion and Water Slide, for example, the minute water-droplets that make up the subject are nothing but abstraction.
We may not be inclined to notice, but in real life, we actually see water as a milky sluicing, as if we were photographing it using an antique camera with a long exposure time. In Fowler’s water-paintings, by contrast, droplets of water are entities. They are visually explorable. The title of one of his recent waterscapes, High Land Water in a Crescent Arc, is clearly both descriptive and, more interestingly, an obvious acknowledgement of the degree to which the painting is an abstract work.
Why have I used the title Aqueous Baroque as a way into Fowler’s paintings? Well, the “aqueous” part seems clear enough, but it is the baroque nature of his paintings that seems even more absorbing. What is the baroque in art history? Complexity of form. Turbulent energy. Stresses and resolutions. A bold juxtaposition of contrasts. Structural doubleness (upper and lower tensions, inner and outer tensions). Inner extravagance of expression, bursting outward—sometimes flamboyantly—into a relentless sense of movement, albeit locked into stillness.
This is the fragrance of the baroque. It’s all there in Graham Fowler’s paintings of water—in all of the sustained inventiveness he brings to them. Water is becoming more precious with every passing day, with each dire decade. Graham Fowler’s paintings are important, not just because they are stunningly beautiful, but because there are also warnings and watch-crys, praise for what is and admonishment about what—if we are not vigilant—might be. Water is fragile. Graham Fowler’s paintings, happily, are solid and strong.
Gary Michael Dault - March, 2016