Paul Duval, "The Art of Graham Fowler", The Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, 1985.

Graham Fowler: Artist's Statement

The paintings in this exhibition are derived from nature and produced from photographs in a studio environment.

Nature provides the motif in my painting, photography the means. Photography acts as a contemporary sketchbook, a data collector that provides information. Rather than replicate Kodac, I use the photographic properties of freezing time, simplified tonal relationships and a verifiable image as a springboard to something else.

It is not my intention to solely describe the visible surface of things. Rather, I choose to heighten the visual rhythms and patterns of a specific scene. Form, line, colour and tonal contrast are altered to enhance the significant meaning of the image.

Though the properties of painting provide the language of my art, it is only one element of the content. The act of painting the external world involves one in an active identification with the subject. Observation of landscape reveals life as a vital process. Cycles of growth, birth, decay and metamorphosis constitute an experience of life influx. It is the relation between life (ie: nature) and the vocabulary of painting that form the thesis of this exhibition.

Graham Fowler

Paul Duval, "The Art of Graham Fowler",

The art of Graham Fowler presents some seeming paradoxes. It is at once contemporary and traditional, Canadian and European, representational and abstract. In other words, it represents a creative mix which is peculiar to it own period and makes him very much an artist of his own time.

Painters duringthe past two decades have been confronted with a multitude of stylistic alternatives. Coming toeard the end of a dynamic series of American movements - abstract expressionism, minimalism, pop, and photo realism - painters born in the fifties, as was Graham Fowler, were easly overwhelmed by a wave of New York School hype, a piblic relations drive unprecidented in the history of art in which various dealer-led groups competed for collectors and the available dollars.

For better or worse, painting today is propelled forward into the public view with the speed and volume facilitated by almost imediate mass reproduction via mass colour reproduction in the press an television. Pictorial art, which was once mainly a contemplative experience is now news, with all the ephemeral character that word suggests. Unless a young artist is either eminently strbborn and original, or academicaly well based, the spate of current art fashion can easly lead to confusion or, worse, the idle adoption of a popular style for its own sake.

For most young artists, the major conflict of recent decades has been the one between abstraction and representation, or the degrees thereof. Torn between the extremes of form and content many serious painters have vacillated from one creative stance to another. A graphic example can be found in the career of noted American artist, Philip Guston, Born in Montreal in1912, Guston built a solid reputation as a figurative painter during the 1940's, only to make a sudden change to the abstract-expressionist movement during the 1950's, and then, as that movement ran out of steam, returned once again to figurative painting in the 1970's. Such switches are not, in the case of an artist like Guston, the result of a cynical response to currently popular movements but, rather, appear to evolve from a lack of confidence in their own particular genius. It is difficult for anyone to resist the pressures of fashion in our contemporary society. Indeed, it requires an almost titanic singleness of spirit and purpose to carve a personal path through the vast forest ofdealers, critics and publicists that contemporary art has become.

Graham Fowler has had to contend with the same multiplicity of choices faced by his contemporaries. Being of a reflective, scholarly turn of mind, his journey through the many - mirrored modern house of art has been a calculated, but not uncreative one. Fowler, despite the seeming romanticism of some of his themes, appears to me to be a mainly classical artist, highly conscious of his creative direction, and occupied with formal values at least as much as with content. He is the type of artist who carefully filters his chosen material and photographic sources into a highly organized design. This in no way denies his intense involvement with his themes, but it does place him apart from the highly emotional impulses of expressionism.
Graham Fowlert career as an artist has a certain inevitability about it. Unlike many budding artists, he was encouraged by his parents in his creative ambitions. His father is an architect and engineer and both of his parents had painted with some seriousness when they were young. Graham was taken to Boston to visit the Museum of Fine Arts, he was encouraged to see the local Halifax shows at Dalhousie University's Rebecca Cohn Art Centre. Art books were bought for him. It was an enthusiastic home environment that invited either firm acceptance or total rejection. Fortunately, Graham met this parental encouragement with total approval.

In 1971, at the age of nineteen, Graham spent the summer in Europe, visiting galleries in London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, Munich and Amsterdam. This trip decided him on his future career. It also helped him form his eventual creative approach to painting. It was in the museums of Europe, with their vast variety of styles on view, that he first achieved, in his own words, "that feeling for aesthetic totality of painting as against content'l His deepest response at the time was to the Venetian masters, Rodin and not surprisingly, the Impressionists, particularly Monet.

In the fall of 1971 Graham enrolled at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, After what he found to be a somewhat "pedestrian" first year, his enthusiasm for his teachers and courses grew with each succeeding year. Among his favourite instructors were Graham Metson and Bruce Parsons. He discovered the work of Karl Appel, Arshile Gorki and Jackson Pollack at exhibits in the Centennial Gallery in Halifax's Citadel. These new discoveries were fortified in 1973 when Graham spent seven weeks at the Edinburgh Festival. His exposure there to a multipiicity of contemporary painting styles both confused and fascinated him. Eventually, like his earlier trip to Europe, this experience helped him to further sort out his personal goals by a slow process of elimination. Its immediate result was to encourage in him an experimental bent, so healthy in a young artist.

In his third year at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Graham embarked on a series of Aztec Waniors paintings, his first serial pictorial project. Both his choice of subject and his stated aim to present the Aztecs as mutating into some other form reflect a natural student romanticism, something which for him was shortlived since, by his fourth year, he was totally involved in highly disciplined colour field paintings dedicated to spacial variations on a select colour scheme.

During his years at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design Graham made three annual visits to a studio loft the College leased in New York at lst Avenue and Houston. These sojourns, each lasting a period of four or five days, allowed him to come to terms with the current centre of world art. Although he was first intimidated by the scale and energy of Manhattan, he was eventually able to sort out the various values, for him, of painters as diverse as Rothko and Richard Estes right in their home base.

Graham Fowler's early colour field paintings of 1975 and 1976 are not to be dismissed as student exercises. Indeed, they are highly disciplined, closely related and well crafted canvases. Although he occasionally experimented with circular or triangular shapes, most of these works are of the traditional rectangular format. Many are of large dimensions, such as Studly in Green (1975) which measures 7 x 5 feet or Reflections (1975) at 5 x 9 feet. Many of these early abstracts are untitled, so it is difficult to discuss them individually, but as a group they form a surprisingly consistent and mature achievement for an artist in his early twenties. Although one senses the influence of Mark Tobey in their general aesthetic approach, these paintings possess a highly personal chromatic character and technical rendering. There is an uninterrupted evolution over this two year period which precedes the artist's first venture into landscape in late 1977. More important, the essence of the dappled play of light patterns which characterize most of Fowler's landscapes is already to be found in these luminous abstracts which went before.

In early 1976, Graham decided to move to Montreal with fellow student, Ken Housego. They worked as landscapists at the Cote de Neiges Cemetery to help pay the rent for their Outremont apartment on Van Horne Street. After work and on weekends, Graham painted regularly and intensely, but with an increasing sense of frustration. Deeply involved though he was in abstraction, he began to be nervous about falling into a stylistic formula. The relative success of his half of a Halifax two-man exhibition in the winter o{ 1976 only increased his suspicions about his own work. After a period of intense reflection, he decided to launch into landscape painting where, he believed, he would find an escape from formula in a pictorial area which was open-ended and not too demanding thematically.

Fowler's 1977 transition from abstraction to landscape was at first a very tentative, almost reluctant, change. He attempted to bridge the gulf between them by incorporating virtual repeat patterns of foliage on to an ovoid format which, at first glance, does not vary too much from his previous works. In a seeming, if unconscious, attempt to delay his new direction to representational art, Fowler would sometimes - almost defiantly - sections like a pie, a gesture which did not change the fact that the surfaces of the fractured canvases were decorated with fairly literal, if at times awkwardly drawn, depictions of the foliage he carefully observed and photographed that late spring and summer in Montreal's Botanical Gardens. It must be said that there is a pedestrian quality about most of these transitional works done during the first half of
1977; some of them are almost harshly literal and self-conscious, For me, these very negative elements suggest the difficult struggle the artist underwent in his transition from abstraction to representational landscape. It was not until after he returned home to Halifax in August of 1977, after receiving a short-term Canada Council grant, that the artist finally found himself at some ease with landscape painting.

Every artist has a special feeling for the forms and spaces of the place of his birth and early years, For some great artists, such as Henry Moore and Paul Cezanne, the physical contours of their birthplace remain indelibly stamped on their work throughout their lives. For Graham Fowler, the resolution to his previous problems about coming to terms with landscape came in the wooded streams that empty into William's Lake and St. Margarett Bay, where he had
played and explored as a child. That autumn's return to his Maritime beginnings marked a crucial creative breakthrough for him. He took hundreds of photographs of the streams and details oftheir banks, rocks and foliage. These photographs precipitated a virtual spate of work during the later months of 1977. The conrrast between the laboured Botanical Garden works and these Nova Scotia stream paintings, with their appearance of almost easy assurance, is truly remarkable. It is difficult to believe that they were painted during the same year. The Organic ilfe series of streamscapes begun in iate 1977 are unquestionably the bases for the
developments in Fowler's art since then.

It is difficult to judge how much of the inspiration derived from these small rivulets of water resulted from the artist's return to a familiar and happy childhood environment and how much was his more particular response to the elements of transient light and texture represented by the streams themselves. Since light had been such an important element in his work since his later art college days, the appeal of reflected light itself was probably a paramount one. In his 1971 trip to Europe he had been, to use his own word, "overwhelmed" by Monet; six years later he was coming to terms with some of the problems and themes of that Impressionist master. For Fowler this was a very different situation from that confronted during the beginning of the century by such early Canadian Impressionist painters as Maurice Cullen, Marc Aurele Suzor-Cote, J.W. Morriceand Helen McNicoll. They did not face the difficulties of a late twentieth-century neo- impressionist painter. They flourished at a time when impressionism was at its zenith. They studied and painted in France while Monet, Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley were doing some of their finest work. And when they returned to Canada to paint their native landscape, they remained essentially European in their approach; and, with the occasional exception of Cullen, they changed their European acquired style little to accommodate the very different and sharper light found in Canada.

From late 1977 onward, Fowler's goal has been to integrate his interest in light and the broken colour of impressionism into a style of his own, paiticularly in the portrayal of water. His success to date in this endeavour has marked him as one of the most gifted Canadian painters of his generation. lnitially taking the formative direction of impressionism, he has travelled
away from it along paths of his own making, while keeping in sight the traditional road. His technique varies substantially from that of the founding impressionists. Although he paints in oil, the surfaces of his paintings are very lean and his forms crisply delineated, unlike the fatter, fully-loaded brushstrokes and softer edges and tonalities utilized by his French impressionist predecessors. An emphatic drawing, tonal clarity and distinctly personal brush calligraphy set Fowler's later paintings apart. His work is unquestionably singular in colour and composition.
From 1978 to 1980 Fowler returned to Montreal to study for his Master of Fine Arts degree at Concordia University. His chosen subject was James Abbott McNeill \ilhistler. Although Whistler's declared, but certainly not always practised, purist approach to painting may have reinforced some of Fowler's ideas about aesthetics, I can see little Whistlerian influence upon the Halifax artist's work, unless it could be argued that such 1980 to 1983 canvases as Floating Lilies, Upright Lily and Lilies in Formation reflect a belated tribute to the Anglo- American master's love of quiet spacial harmonies.

While at Concordia, Fowler became increasingly interested in the patterns and rhythms found in the movement of water, and their possibilities as a design source for his own paintings. Of the works of this period, the artist himself considers the three compositions of Englishman River Falls the most successful. These canvases were obviously important to him as a learning experience. Stripped down to the most minimal colour and a very thin paint surface, they share something of the appearance of large, lightly printed lithographs. The more richly surfaced 1980 Arrangement in Beige, Brown and Silver, with its Whistlerian title, is a richer canvas than the Englishman River Falls trio, despite its muted tonal scheme and more subtle composition. In such works, by divesting his work of prominent local colour, Fowler was able to concentrate on structure, pattern and texture.

The early 1980's saw Fowler's obsession with the portrayal of rushing water rewarded by some of his finest compositions. The theme, first hinted at in the Organic Life series of 1978, was to become a leitmotif in his future work, leading to the sparkling Torrential Spring trio of paintings of 1984, which must be considered among his finest achievements to date. In these canvases, closely woven textures of grass, weeds, rocks and water meld into a unified pictorial rhythm that moves easily back and forth across the picture plane.

This preoccupation with close-up portrayals of moving water has interesting precedents in Canadian painting. In January 1913, J.E.H. MacDonald and Lawren Harris visited an exhibition of Contemporary Scandinauian Art at the Albright Gallery in Buffalo, New York. MacDonald was enamoured of a group of paintings by Swedish artist, Gustav Adolf Fjaestad, paintings which featured detailed portrayals of the rapid movement of water. On Aprii 17, 1932, nineteen years after the Aibright show, MacDonald spofe fondly of the exhibition in a lecture delivered at the Art Gallery of Toronto. He spoke of the immense impact it had upon him and Harris. How, in general, "Except in minor points, the pictures might all have been Canadian and, we felt 'This is what we want to do for Canada! "

More specifically, MacDonald praised the waterscapes of Gustav Fjaestad, who had shown in Buffalo canvases bearing such titles asPart of A Waterfall, Ripples and Running Water. "The flow and tipple of water was beautifully painted by him", recalled MacDonald, "and shaded streams and stony rapids, and mottled rocks, and spotted birch trunks. We were so fond of these ourselves that we couldn't but like the pictures and were well assured that no Swedish brook or river would speak a language unknown to us and that we would know our own streams and rivers the better for Fjaestad's revelations. It seemed to us that the Scandinavians were at least 25 years ahead of us in seizing our opportunities'1

A number of MacDonald's finest paintings resulted directly from Fjaestad's influence. Within months of his visit to the 1913 Albright show, he painted A Rapid In The North andThe Song of the Rapld, both strongly reminiscent of Fjaestad's Ripples and Running Water. Thisinfluence remained for many years, culminating in such major works as Leaves In the Brook (1919), The Wild River (1919) and Batchawana Rapid (1920). The water paintings by Graham Fowler, in a very real sense, share a direct line of succession from that 1913 Scandinavian exhibition. (lt is an interesting aside that Fort McMurray, Alberta, where Fowler currently resides, teaches and paints is on the same latitude to that where Fjaestad painted most of his canvases.)
That Graham Fowler is a fitting heir to this tradition of water painting through Monet, Fjaestad and MacDonald is proven by his paintings ofrecent years. Such canvases as William's Lake, Nova Scotia (1980), Arrangement inBeige, Brown and Silver (1980), Integration of Water Lilies and Foliage, No. 1 (1982), Integration of Water Shore and Lilies, No. 1 (1982), Rock and 'Water Formation No. I (1983), and the TorrentiaL Spring series of 1984 and 1985 reveal both the variety and consistent richness of his mature talents. They are intense, superbly ctafted works which prove, once again, that a painting can be both pleasing in content and satisfying as art, a fact established much earlier by artists from Botticelli to Renoir, but too often suspect today.

The art of Graham Fowler is still relatively unknown across his native country. His solo exhibitions at Toronto's Nancy Pool's Studio gallery in 1981, 1982 and 1984 introduced him to a larger Eastern Canadian audience. Now, hopefully, this current travelling show ortganized by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia will bring his wotk to a much wider public.

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Upcoming Exhibitions

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Gallery Gevik, May 28 - June 24, 2016, 12 Hazelton Ave. Toronto

 

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