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.
Fowler's childhood experiences of nature left an indelible impression on him, as did a trip to Europe when he was nineteen. Undoubtedly these influences led to his decision to become an artist. Of that initial trip to Europe in 1971, Fowler's strongest memory is one of being totally overwhelmed by what he saw. Fowler soaked up the wealth of art that the major museums in London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Venice, Munich and Amsterdam had to offer, and began the process of mapping out the route his own art was to take. Paul Duval, in his catalogue essay for the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia's 1985 exhibition of Fowler's work, identifies the Venetian masters, Rodin and the Impressionists and notably Monet, as artists whose work stood out particularly for Fowler during that formative period.
In the fall of 1971 Fowler began studies at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NASCAD) in Halifax. His time at NASCAD was a period of intense experimentation. Essential to his development was the first-hand exposure to major contemporary American and European artists at the Edinburgh festival and - courtesy of a studio leased by NASCAD - through a number of visits to New York. Fowler's enthusiasms at that time were for abstract painters Karl Appel, Arshile Gorki, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, as well as the photo-realist painter Richard Estes (an interesting choice in terms of Fowler's later aspirations). Abstract art held sway for Fowler in the final year of his term at NASCAD and he began his series of colour field paintings which he continued producing until 1977. These canvases were ambitious in size, some measuring as large as five by nine feet. Their cubist synthesis of two and three dimensionality achieve for Fowler a parallel with the compressed space of oriental pictures. The formal construction of these abstractions evidences the beginnings of a vision which searches for a metaphysical unity of object and concept.
I think of cubism and how it ties into an oriental conceptual space. In Chinese and Japanese art there is not really linear perspective in operation. Instead there exists a tension between near and far, and this creates a rhythmic journey throughout the painting. These are things I've wanted to explore, right from the beginning, even when I was a student painting non-objectively. The idea of not flattening out the pictorial field, but instead of moving in and around it and creating patterns; it is this I found, and continue to find, intriguing.1
Fowler's move to Montreal in 1976 precipitated a gradual shift in his work from the non-objective to the representational. Although still committed to abstraction, Fowler felt increasingly that his work was becoming too predictable and formulaic. In order to break what he considered a repetitive practice, Fowler looked toward natural forms for inspiration. In Montreal's Botanical Gardens he found easily accessed, abundant collections of plant life. Fowler photographed various plant formations, concentrating on capturing very pronounced figure / ground relationships. He describes these transitional paintings as being 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. This idea of affording the viewer multiple access points is one that still serves as a fundamental device of Fowler's painting some twenty-five years later.
Canadian landscape painter John Hartman writes in the 1999 catalogue for his national touring exhibition, "I believe we all have a home landscape, a place from our childhood, whose light, space and scale are the benchmark for all other landscapes. We carry our home landscapes around inside us."2 In light of this sentiment, perhaps it is no coincidence that Fowler's return to Halifax in the fall of 1977 marked the production of The Organic Life Series, a group of accomplished paintings of woodland streams in an area known to him since childhood. In these highly detailed depictions - the result of hundreds of photographs of rocks, plants and moving water -we see the constituents of Fowler's mature oeuvre.
As human beings, we are the products of our past, and thus our learned history, and when we experience nature through our constructed biases, we cannot escape these. In my work, in regards to my experience of nature, there is a paradox. In the suburbs of Halifax, where I grew up, there were streams and lakes, and quite literally I could walk into the forest, and I did. And so it is almost like I keep returning to a childhood Arcadia, which is probably part of my attraction to water and light. On the other hand, that is a side of me I've left behind, and I can get very uncomfortable in nature, and can find it overpowering. When I present these natural images in my painting, I'm trying to bring order to that overwhelming chaos.
In 1978, Fowler found himself back in Montreal, studying for his Masters of Fine Arts degree at Concordia University. Throughout his time at Concordia and into the 1980s, Fowler continued to create realist paintings with an abstract architecture. Colour is freed from its descriptive function and allowed to assume an expressive dimension. The rhythms and patterns of life forms found alongside bodies of water, and the movement of the water itself, viewed up-close, continued to be his essential subject matter.
As a young painter coming out of the1970s, I wanted to retain some connection with the overall space of color-field painting. By focusing closely in on a landscape, I was able to maintain this overall sense of space where no area becomes more important than another. A lot of my paintings are about the surface of the water as there is a complexity of feeling derived from it; it's a flat surface that reveals that which is above it and that which is below it, while defining its own surface. The complexity of that kind of articulated space fascinated me for formal reasons, on a personal metaphysical level, and as a mantra or a repetitive note in music in which you could lose yourself. Another big influence on my work, when I was young and painting abstractly, but also later when I moved into representational work, was the minimalist music of composers like Terry Rilley and early Bill Glass. They would take one cord and repeat it over and over again creating a transcendent meditative quality. I've always associated my painting with music that doesn't have to refer to things outside itself so much as its own repetitive patterns and rhythms, and that can lead you into a meditative state.
The intersection of the decorative and the naturalistic that defines Fowler's water paintings finds a point of reference in northern romantic art at the turn of the century. In providing precedents for Fowler's paintings of flowing water, Paul Duval, in his catalogue essay for the 1985 exhibition of Fowler's paintings organized by the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, identifies Swedish artist, Gustaff Fjaestad as an inspiration for J.E.H. Macdonald's work. Fjaestad, who often translated his compositions into tapestries, employed a surface patterning of strokes independent of descriptive function. In his interpretation of the changeable face of bodies of water, he allowed for a symbolist tone to permeate the expression. Additionaly, Fowler's own content finds reference among others of this same group of Nordic painters; Eilif Peterssen's highly charged paintings often explore the transformative power of nature through its cycles of birth, death and regeneration.
Fowler's interest in drawing the viewer into the field of the painting by creating an immersive environment is perfectly served by the water theme. Garden at Giverny, a commissioned work of 1990, has to be considered one of the major achievements of this series. A four panel painting measuring 54 x 280 inches, it has as its subject Monet's garden at Giverny. Fowler's subsequent travels in Europe since that influential initial visit had further familiarized him with the work of Monet. For Fowler, painting the garden that Monet had designed, and that had served as inspiration for much of the artist's own work, was a somewhat daunting task, but one that paid homage to an artist he much admired. What struck Fowler most about Monet's work was how Monet was able to delay recognition of the subject matter through an incredibly rich atmosphere of coloured light. The resulting sense he had of losing himself in the space of Monet's paintings was what he too was after in his own work, but there was a considerable difference in how Monet and how Fowler approached painting. Although Fowler admired Monet's painterly virtuosity of mark-making - of orchestrating layers of thick and thin paint - this opacity was not what he was after. Rather, he wanted the paint to achieve a purity and luminosity as though it was back-lit, much like a stained glass window. Fowler identifies the shimmering quality that Seurat achieves through a series of dot-like marks as closer to his own ambitions.
I'm interpreting the dot system that constructs the photograph along with the image I get at the same time, and at some point, the pixel-like quality of the photograph takes over the image. This approach helps me break the colour down. If Seurat had used a colour photograph in this way, he would have had a more accurate way of putting four colours together that would mix optically from a distance.
From the earliest days of the photographic image, painters have taken full advantage of the diverse range of possibilities the camera affords: cropping, the instant moment, informal arrangement. Historically, for painters, the photograph was an excellent medium of documentation that could compliment or replace the traditional sketch as source material for paintings executed in the studio. The camera's effectiveness at recording fact (empirical information) contributed greatly to the liberation of form and colour from a purely descriptive or mimetic function, allowing for a wider experimentation with the function that colour could play in painting. It was this liberation that provided the conditions for the development of more abstract expression, evident in movements such as Impressionism, Expressionism and Symbolism.
Fowler's vision manifests itself first in the photographs he takes. They serve a similar function as a sketchbook, and represent an intense, immediate response to the subject. Typically, Fowler takes exposures from as many different vantage points as possible, perhaps taking as many as one hundred photographs. Unlike the Impressionists, whose interest in capturing the effects of momentary light required (for the most part) that they have immediate visual contact with their subject, Fowler takes advantage of the ability to instantly record the fleeting quality of light through photographs in order to take a much different approach. The photograph, by virtue of neutrality in recording information and its remove from the original source, provides the opportunity for a more contemplative response. With the photograph as referent, Fowler employs a rigorous, almost mathematical manner of breaking down the patterning of colour and light, which he describes as "crucial to the development of the painting." At this point, the photograph becomes a trigger for the recollection of sensations experienced at a particular moment. The content found in the painting is therefore the result of an evolution of changing impressions of the subject matter, mediated through photography and the act of painting itself.
The kind of distancing photography creates, allows you to experience the subject in different stages. David Hockney has written a new book in which he looks at the development of portraits. By the middle of the Renaissance there is an incredible change that takes place in portraiture. All of a sudden the modeling becomes more developed: the value contrast becomes greater, the nuances of the corner of an eye or an open mouth are more intricate, and a hand in mid-gesture almost appears as if it's been done photographically. Hockney is tracing the ascending quality of looking by the artists; he's saying that they knew about optics and they knew about mirrors, and that they achieved this detail by using mechanical aids. He talks about the camera Lucida and the camera Obscura and other tools. He finds references in the paintings that indicate optical distortions. Artists have frequently used optic technology, with or without the print, to be distanced enough from what they are observing to understand the relationships between the subjects and their surrounding space. And so I see myself as being part of this tradition. Hockney is quite right in saying that you can see things that with the naked eye you just wouldn't be able to locate.
Superficially, it's possible to place Fowler's work in the context of the photo-realists. However, the way that Fowler uses the photograph distinguishes him from this tradition. The photo-realists employ the photograph as an instrument of mimeticism, as a means of capturing the appearance of things, while Fowler uses the photograph as source material to be interpreted. Up close Fowler's paintings are an abstraction of broken colour and lines; from a distance they read as landscape. While the photo-realists sought banal subject matter, Fowler's interest is in aesthetic richness. Of the so-called photo-realists, an artist that Fowler identifies as an important early influence is Joseph Raffael, whose work he first encountered in 1973 at the Whitney Biennial in New York. He was profoundly impressed by Raffael's representation of nature. While there are differences - Raffael takes a more mimetic approach and employs a broader stroke more indicative of watercolour than Fowler's more fragmentary application - Fowler considers Raffael a kindred spirit.
In his influential 1969 documentary series, Civilisation, Kenneth Clark talks about the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 -1778). Listening to the flux and reflux of waves, Rousseau tells us he became completely at one with nature, that he lost all consciousness of an independent self, everything except the sense of being. Rousseau said, "I realize that our existence is nothing but a succession of moments perceived through the senses."3 There are moments when I'm photographing a scene in nature, and also later when I'm painting it, when I do lose sight of my own consciousness as an independent self. It's an experience akin to what the Buddhists aspire to - the emptying of a constructed self. At a time when most artists are deconstructing the nature of identity, my work is in a sense about the absence of identity. It's what happens when you become an eye, when you just expel air and you're simply looking at something and trying to figure out the incredible complexity of what's around you. The whole concept of sensation is also tied to early Romanticism. It's not logical, indeed it has an anti-rational element to it. The Empiricists talked about knowledge in terms of the instinctual - how what we learn, we learn through our senses. If you touch something, what you are experiencing isn't actually the object itself, but the sensations that you pick up through that object. So there is an element of distrust or uncertainty that creeps into that idea. In my paintings, that stream of sensation becomes a stream of consciousness. It's that emphasis on sensation, even though it's primarily optical, that gives my paintings that feeling of intensity. That feeling ties in very well with the abstract qualities of the work up close, and ultimately makes them coalesce into something immutable from a distance. In this way, my paintings acknowledge sensation but they also acknowledge that inescapable dissonance between sensation and the physical world.
In Merlin, a canvas from 1997, Fowler presents an astonishingly beautiful painting whose colour and light reference both the variety and transformative power of nature, and reflect the invention of the artist. At play is an elusive realism in which the extraordinary range of incident on the surface of the picture constantly redirects our focus, creating a perpetual shift between image and abstraction. The details of this close-up landscape invite us to enter, while at the same time refocusing our gaze as a reflection of an inner landscape of the mind. Painted with a relatively small brush, Fowler's tapestry of discreet marks creates a highly charged atmosphere as the eye explores the composition, moving from place to place.
Fowler's mark-making reflects his aim to access the inner recesses of experience. Fowler describes his technique as one of deliberate stroking. He suggests that these marks "...are not about being spontaneous but about a rigorous quality of looking, of responding to light and colour not in a scientific way, but in an analytical meditative way." This almost mystical process finds a parallel in the abstract paintings of the American artist Mark Tobey (1890-1976), whose study of Zen Buddhism provided the philosophical underpinnings of his art. Although lacking the degree of representation offered by Fowler's paintings, Tobey's use of a web-like network of lines within an essentially cubist conception of space function as they do in Fowler's pictures: as the embodiment of energy, more than a delineation of form. However, in general, Fowler's calligraphic marks have a much quieter disposition than the more active strokes of Tobey.
'Merlin' as a title seems entirely appropriate for this evocative work. Rarely are Fowler's titles arbitrary. They can, as in works such as River and Rock Formation or Arrangement in Blue and Green, be a means of reinforcing the idea of his pictures as abstract constructions. They can also acknowledge an emotional connectedness and stand as a testament or memorial. Gold River, for instance, was so named because it was the name of a much-loved river in Nova Scotia where a friend drowned. The painting Merlin commemorates the passing of Fowler's cat Merlin. Merlin was also the name given to the wizard of the Arthurian legends, and mentor to King Arthur, and a mystical, mythical reading is not at odds with the feeling of this painting. The tapestry of fact and fiction that Fowler weaves in Merlin is most evident in the movement of water as it journeys through the pictorial space; resplendent with reflections from above and optical distortions from below. The colour of the objects themselves contribute to a reality that converges with the imagination of the artist. The motion of water is an essential metaphor for Fowler, who notes that "in its fluidity it is always just becoming or just past." An interface between the external and internal, water is both of itself and of another.
The informality of the close cropped waterfall portrayed in Merlin is countered by a more formal structure in another commissioned work, The Current that Flows Through the Source. Here Fowler establishes tension in a much shallower space, and sets up a dialogue that encompasses the classical and architectural with the atmospheric. A triptych format was decided upon to accommodate the possibility of the owner having to reinstall the painting at a more limited location at a later date. This demanded that each panel function as a completely resolved painting. In deciding on the shape of the panels, Fowler made a mathematical connection to architecture and painting by loosely playing on the idea of the Golden Mean (or Golden Section), an ideal relationship of parts, signifying beauty in the organization of the cosmos, and represented by the Greek letter Phi. He also considered the aesthetic of the site by keying his hues to the coolness of the marble walls. Rather than employing shifting vantage points for the three panels, he decided instead to direct attention to the space between the panels.
Typifying Fowler's interstice of the specific and the metaphysical is The Current that Flows Through the Source, which in its intimate representation of the sublime forces of nature makes connections with the Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865-1931) and his picture Waterfall at Mantyoski, 1892-94. In both works, the shallow vertical spaces immerse the viewer in the rhythms and cadences of nature. Gallen-Kallela's analogy to music, suggested by the five painted harp strings he overlays on the landscape, parallels Fowler's feeling that, like music, water in its rhythmic movements can induce a meditative state.
The title 'The Current that Flows Through the Source' is a play on words inspired by the writings of John Berger. To me, his is a very sociological, deterministic view of art. He takes all the factors, all the past linear history and ideology that could explain how an artwork came to be, but inevitably concludes that nothing could explain "the energy flowing through the current." That is wonderful because he created a very deterministic argument, and then he acknowledges the ineffable, the big mystery - the things that we can't define, or even fully observe."4
In The Current that Flows Through the Source, Fowler celebrates the awesome beauty of a mountain waterfall and renders it with amazing clarity. From a distance, the sparkling intensity of his mark-making comes together to form a soft, radiant light that envelops rocks, water, plants, bestowing upon them a spiritual dimension. This symbolic light is of a kind whose origins can be traced to the fifteenth century and the paintings of the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck (1834-1441), whose 'new realism' found the sacred in the everyday. The fountain, a traditional symbol in religious art of the era and much used by van Eyck and his Netherlandish peers, finds an equivalence in Fowler's waterfall as a symbol of eternal life. Continuing in this vein, the three panels may be seen as invoking an association with the Holy Trinity.
In his art, Fowler consciously avoids the social critique. His paintings are not about man's relationship with nature, not about the despoiled or untouched landscape. What they are about is a sensation of nature. Water, the primary subject of these works, with its vernacular of fluidity serves as an apt metaphor for nature's transformative powers. Through keen observation of the play of light on surfaces, and an imaginative ability to effect emotionally charged atmospheres of colour, Fowler creates a paradoxical realism whereby the subject is both the object of our enquiry and a reflection of our own psychic landscape. His is an aesthetic art that embraces beauty in an age when the predominant emotional resonance is that of angst. What Graham Fowler offers us is the chance to reconnect with the mysterious beauty that is nature.
1. All italicized paragraphs are quotes by the artist from interviews conducted at the Mendel Art Gallery in February 2002.
2. Mathew Hart, Big North: The Paintings of John Hartman, Key Porter Books, Toronto, 1999 pp.24-25.
3. Kenneth Clark, "The Worship of Nature," in Civilisation (BBC-2, 1969), pp.273-274.
4. John Berger, "The Work of Art," The Sense of Sight (Pantheon Books, 1986), p.203.