“The Painter as Musician: Graham Fowler’s Water Music”
Ask any musician. They’ll tell you there’s rhythm, movement, and harmonies to be found in most painting. As a jazz and classical musician-composer, what draws me to Graham Fowler’s paintings is the extraordinary musicality of his work. By “musicality” I mean the ways in which small thematic elements of rhythm and sound are repeated in sequences to create a striking development, tension, and release in real time. But how to do this in a static two-dimensional painting without sound requires some real magic from the artist (aka technical skill and vision) and a certain kind of synesthetic imagination from the viewer. Walter Pater’s famous (and pretentious) claim in 1873 that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music” might contain some truth, but I am not sure what it is. Does he mean that non-choral music captures something that no other art really does? Is it that the evocative melodies and pulses of music capture the non-verbal experiences of pleasure or pain, joy or anguish, amazement or puzzlement without a specific content? Or is it that music gives life to the ineffable, the intensity of raw human responsiveness that vanishes once the music stops? Or does music simply transport us out of ourselves into a different world in time, foreign but still somehow intimate? One can certainly philosophize further, as Arthur Schopenhauer does—“The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.…Music expresses only the quintessence of life and its events, never these themselves.” But we need common sense to step in here: we don’t listen to music to become philosophers. We are there to enter into the experience, to cross thresholds.
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.
Fowler's art is first and foremost a meditation on the ineffable. His work is founded on a belief in the convergence of the rational and the poetic, and aims both to end our feelings of estrangement from the natural world, and provide for the possibility of emotional and spiritual reunification. Mediated through memory and sentiment, Fowler's luminous pictorial atmospheres serve as imaginative equivalencies for sensations of the phenomenological world. A waterfall, a pond resplendent with brightly coloured fish, or a swiftly flowing stream; these are the subject matter of large, intricately coloured paintings that afford the sublime an intimate face. Though these environments are bereft of figurative representation, they nevertheless immerse the spectator in the abstract construction of the paintings, initiating a correspondence with their seemingly endless rhythms and transfiguring light. Fowler acknowledges perception of the material world as a mirror of our inner selves.
Representation as a Language of Form
"The function of artistic illusion is not make believe but the very opposite, disengagement from belief . The knowledge that what is before us has no practical significance in the world is what enables us to give attention to its appearance as such."
In the 1985 catalogue essay for Graham Fowler's solo public gallery exhibition at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, the critic Paul Duval writes "his work was a seeming paradox at once contemporary and traditional, Canadian and European ... a mix that made him very much an artist of his time". 1 Duval insightfully discusses Fowler's education, the forces that shaped the artist, the nature of his practice and the works to that date. To Duval, Fowler is a mainly classical artist occupied with formal values at least as much as with content, a late 20th century neo-impressionist, and heir to the tradition of water painting through Monet, Fraestand and MacDonald. In conclusion he states that Fowler is one of the most gifted painters of his generation. Duval has written a perceptive, well crafted, reader friendly essay that looks at the practice and work of a then emerging young artist.
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.
In the early 1970s, when Graham Fowler began his training as an artist. he initially placed himself in the tradition of twentieth-century abstract art. His early work, a series of large colour-field paintings completed while he was a student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, was inspired by such artists as Karel Appel, Arshile Gorky and Mark Rothko. It was only after he moved to Montreal in 1976 that he began to make use of natural forms in his work, finding fresh inspiration in the plant life at the Montreal Botanical Gardens. By the late 1970s, his sense that his abstract paintings were no longer entirely satisfactory led him to move towards more representational work. It was now that he began the practice of photographing plant formations, working to capture strong figure/ground relationships. As Graham explained to curator George Moppett, in reference to his 2002 Water Paintings exhibition at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon, the paintings which resulted from this process were linear, disjointed, and in some cases divided into sections that could be rearranged. In these pictorial fields there was somewhat of a cubist element at play in the compression of different vantage points. The notion of giving the viewer "multiple access points" continues to serve as a central compositional device in his paintings today.