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.
This essay nearly 10 years later for Fowler's third catalogue, will build on the conceptual blocks he has put in place. The difference is that this essay is a loose collaboration between the writer and the artist. It is my belief that the intention of the artists and what they say about their work and practice is of significant impact into gaining a fuller understanding of their work
Graham Fowler and I have discussed this and many ideas about art, society and the Academy over the several years that we have been colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan. After our decision to collaborate in writing an essay I had been provided with his lecture notes so that I would be able to write his voice into the narrative. Hopefully our strategy has allowed this intention of the reader gaining insight into the artist's practice and thoughts, ultimately enhancing the viewing pleasure from the paintings.
Fowler is first and foremost a painter of beautiful paintings. that delight the eye and later the mind. The works are premeditated and skilfully crafted with the end in mind of creating visually alluring paintings. Working from photographs, he meticulously draws the image onto the canvas, he then lays on thin layers of oil paint over the drawing to bring it up, all the time adjusting colour and space relationships within the painting to create the overall sense of form that is so important to his work It is a slow and meticulous technique that has no short cuts. This is not to suggest that these are mere virtuoso displays of craft or that the artist is a tongue tied savant incoherent before society articulate only in his paintings. Rather, reflected in his paintings is the sensibility of an urbane, well read, cosmopolitan Canadian whose paintings have coded within their masterly display of technique, many of the arguments, germane to contemporary art theory.
Fowler has enjoyed considerable success since he started painting and his exhibitions have always been looked forward to. His work has been represented in many important and discerning private, public and corporate collections.
Fowler is a traditional easel painter and very much part of that tradition that has been the backbone of painting since the 16th century. Duval, as I do, places him squarely in this tradition, and sees the antecedents of his work in the impressionists and the Group of Seven. An over familiarity with the images, and not the craft or theory behind the painting, combined with the turmoil and theoretical drive of much art practice in the 70's and 80's has tended to blur the trajectory of this tradition. However the implications of this tradition are critically important when looking at Fowler's work and trying to situate it in its context. Fowler himself freely acknowledges this tradition and situates his work in this context. His travels as a youth in Europe hooked him by his own admission on painting, and on his return he went to art school to become a painter, a vocation he has practiced energetically and conscientiously since that time.
Fowler's work most obviously bears comparison to Joseph Raphael and John Clem Clark and other contemporary realists. However unlike these realists, his have the haunting presence which can also be seen in the work of fellow Maritimers, Alex Colville and Christopher and Mary Pratt and Tom Forrestal. All have an enigmatic quality that seems more than the fidelity of their realism. Fowler's work has a haunting emptiness most similar to the works of Christopher Pratt. Like Pratt, there are few figures in Fowler's paintings, however I would suggest that the enigma of his painting has more to do with the formal hyper perfection of the paintings. Secondly he works from his photographs taken in situ, but then reworks passages of light and colour through the painting to create a formally balanced and constructed image. The image sits in shallow space and allows the eye no central perspectives, but instead keeps the viewer's eyes moving back and forth over the more and more perfect scene. This subtle lack of a resting place further contributes to the sense of enigma in the works, which is the artist's intention.
Fowler's paintings are usually derived from photographs of sites to which he has had a strong emotional response, and that dipict landscapes in both park sites and the untouched natural state. It was the artist's recognition that his early abstract works, derived from internal imagery and the formal vocabulary of abstract expressionism and colour field painting were lacking in the pictorial inventiveness which he desired, that eventually led him to landscape painting. He realized that the rhythmic composition of his paintings and his concern for light and colour bore affinities with the Impressionists. "In a leap of faith I chose landscape because I felt it would enable me to break out of the formulas that had become so much a part of my work into a pictorial area that was open ended and narratively limited".
In order to create these works Fowler had to, in his own words, to "teach himself how to draw and master the technical skills required". There was a short hiatus in his production while he was acquiring these skills and a few tentative works, but he was soon on track and evolved the style of the painting that allowed him to carry on his investigation into light and colour that was the impetus for his choice. Interestingly the first series of paintings in this mature style were done from photographs of areas of Halifax where the artist played and grew up.
For Fowler the photograph, quoting Gerta Moray in an essay on Mary Pratt "enables one to capture moments of nature that are fleeting and characterized by momentary qualities of light". 2 The process of painting from life, for Fowler is not swift enough to record the transitory qualities of light with the fidelity he requires. In the photographic process reality imprints its own image. This frozen image, with its distance from direct experience, simplifies the process of translating three dimensional subject matter into two dimensional form, and allows him to analyze form in a detached analytical manner for light, colour shape, space and pattern. Fowler freely acknowledges that his work is dependent on the photographic image seeing the camera as a "natural contemporary mode of vision, perhaps the norm of how we perceive and represent the world". 3 It is democracy in vision, it does not edit the world the way the eye and mind do. "It captures everything in its path, even what the eye and mind exclude." The unedited quality of photographs allows for a free form association because one sees new things that one did not notice at the original moment of taking the photograph. Photography is a tool for and part of the process of making paintings for Fowler He is however not a photo realist. Despite the resemblance of fidelity to appearances, the words are not copies of the photography, they provide him with an image to interpret, a grid on which to construct the painting, major passages of his painting bear little relationship to the photographic source. In fact, through interpretation the paintings most resemble things they are not, rather than the images that inspired them. Colour and value are frequently broken down into small brush strokes that are quite abstract when viewed closely but form a readable image when seen from a distance. As the artist states, "I am not simply trying to render the visible surface of things, I am making a painting in which all the visual elements relate to each other".
The artist says that the quote in the beginning of this essay has had the most influence in his thinking on the nature of the reality that his paintings invoke. Furthermore he says that despite the illusionistic qualities of his paintings, his intention is not to convince anyone of the reality of the paintings illusions, but the very opposite. "The realism of my painting is coupled to the sense of sight alone. One cannot smell, hear or move through the space of the illusionistic surface and must always come back to the fact that what is before them is a representation. a visual interpretation". The artist states that "it is my hope, perhaps conceit, that this quality will lead people to focus on the formal and thematic qualities of the work". The formal qualities of the work are in general about the loss arising with modernism of the privileged framing space of perspective. The fixed vantage point of linear perspective is abandoned as are modelling, clear direction of light, and definition of space. This disrupts the clear controlled space in which the world around us has been made visually knowable and in which the traditional construction of narrative meaning has been structured. The viewer is not in a fixed relationship with the illusionistic space of the painting. The conception of form in most of the paintings is overall with no one area more significant than another. The distance between near and far is frequently compressed and colour and value are heightened. For Fowler this modernist conception of space in combination with the ambiguous narrative content of landscapes, shapes the fictive and thematic content of his work His sense of space most approximates Chinese painting when one can start at any point and wander through the painting visually going back and forth at any time. Even when his paintings push holes in space they are as likely to take your eye out to the periphery as they are to the centre. This Post Cubist Greenbergian sense of space is perhaps why people with a Greenbergian intellectual background respond to the paintings as well as they do. Fowler has taken the lessons of colour field painting and Abstract Expressionism and managed to move them into a highly pictorial idiom.
The next series of paintings that Fowler painted after his water paintings came from a protracted stay he had in France in the mid eighties. The first of these paintings were the paintings of Monet's garden. The act of painting this subject matter caused the artist real feelings of anxiety. What does it mean to paint a well known site by a renowned artist? Everything in his education and sense of painting made him feel as if he was violating a taboo, something that shouldn't be done. It wasn't original, it might be perceived as sentimental or worse, nostalgic, how could he claim authorship, the subject matter was worn out. For all these reasons and the sense of denial that he experienced he decided to paint a series based on Monet's Garden at Giverny.
In his usual manner Fowler took many photographs and made extensive notes. Unlike Monet, Fowler did not paint plein-air perferring to work distanced from the original site, believing that he was temperamentally unable or unwilling to trust his first hand experience. While not adopting Monet's method or stylistic vocabulary for Fowler "the act of painting Monet's subject matter was like having a conversation with him". It was a rewarding and generous conversation that resulted in some of Fowler's most successful paintings, imbued with deep verdant shadows and a luminous sense of light
The next series of paintings were the Paris Park Series. Here the artist had again to face the same questions as in deciding to paint the Monet's Garden Series, how to paint a city that so many had painted before. Fowler focused on the Luxembourg Gardens; it reminded him of the Public Gardens in Halifax with its formal staggered space and its nineteenth century statues. It was the type of cultual construction that Fowler liked to work with so well. The Gardens represented a paradox, originally constructed as a representation of power and authority it had become the playground for the people it was built to exclude. Similarly it provided Fowler with a foil against which to work out intellectual questions, engaging to his mind. Earlier in the essay I mentioned Fowler's relentless and keen intelligence, thoroughly if informally trained in philosophy and art talk. These paintings have coded in them, the intellectual/psychological biography of the artist, for while the paintings have adhered to his rigorous notions of space and colour they also have adhered to his questions for and solutions to contemporary art theory.
"City Reflections in the Medici Fountain" is a painting of the fountain designed by Salimon de Brosse and carved by Ottin in 1863. The myth that the fountain's statue illustrates is that of the Cyclops Polyphemus who is about to crush to death the mythical lovers, Aeis, a shepherd, and the goddess Dalon. Like many of his paintings it utilized a reflected image in water. The reflected image is not distorted but is a symmetrical part of the overall shape. Formal concerns were ascendant in the artist's intention; for Fowler "the image goes beyond representation to suggest that it is a creation of space on a rectangle". In the "Medici Fountain #2", the reflected image is broken and distorted by the water, the effect being to separate the image from itself and show that the two parts are connected by form. The distorted image itself is given solid form by the shape of the basin. For the artist "to look at the painting, is to perceive form and shape, and not simply a representational image". However the images in these paintings which began as a formal enterprise led him to question landscape as a culturally encoded production.
Other images in this series are of statues that once represented the social power of an elite whose visual metaphors no longer have broad cultural resonance. Diluted by the passage of time, they have become frozen metaphors, visual background objects that exist in a society indifferent to their meaning
"Chopin's Muse, Frozen Metaphor #2" ideally illustrates the coding that goes into the painting. Prior to painting this work the artist was reading a book on the nude, which presented an argument in which it stated that women, because of their capacity for birth and the cyclical nature of their biology are more closely tied to nature. Men, because they lack these ties to nature, compensate by attaching themselves to culture. This offensive argument would seem to deny women as cultural agents. The sculpture in the painting is a monument to Chopin and represents the muse that inspired his creations. This "Phallic monument for its absurdity" opens up to complexity what Fowler perceives as a reductionist theory "If the muse is feminine and inspires culture, how can women be denied cultural agency?" At the same time, bathed in irony the monument is weathered and returning to nature.
The tension between narrative and formal qualities is apparent in the final painting of the series, "Dionysius on the Slide" Frozen Metaphor #3, The sculpture represents Selinus, the shaggy beared pot bellied old satyr who is the guardian, tutor and constant companion of Dionysius, the Greek god of wine and fertility whose personality takes on the character of wine, both jovial and savage. This painting over time has taken on a very personal meaning for the artist passing 40, embodying the fear of descending chaos, old age, and death. These thoughts of the artist on this painting however are perhaps the healthy thoughts of a realist very much attached to life.
Perhaps the most obvious of Fowler's questioning was in the paintings, "The Garden ofMr Eve Vantage Point I & 2" in which two paintings from opposite vantage points were juxtaposed together. The artist constructed an actual trellis
that was placed between them, as an attempt to question the priori of the painting. By putting a trellis between them it drew attention to the fact that these were illusionistic, but that the illusions weren't real. He saw it as an attempt at deconstructing the notion of the real in his painting. If people did not understand the significance of the trellis, it was perhaps the seduction in the two paintings of the warm allusions of the lush garden and the post cubist spatial ambiguity.
These concerns, and particularly the latter are continued in the Charlie's Wall and Ancestoral Boarhouse paintings. They are also an interesting and profound return to the sources of the artist's earliest paintings. In these paintings he has moved away from this working with representatives of history to working with representatives of things that were surrounding him in his childhood; personal history now takes on a metaphorical meaning. The painting Charlie's Wall came about as a result of a visit to his parents summer home and seeing a sea wall that his father a retired architect, had built. Fowler had been struck by what the sea wall represented, the relentless urge to create - a type of primal architecture - not unlike earthworks. The painting is actually four canvasses of the same site, from different vantage points, visually held together by the manipulation of light and space that has been the artist's preoccupation for the last I5 years. This formal studying of the same site for light and colour bears an obvious similarity to the practice of Monet, who so elequently used particular places and objects to carry out his pictorial investigations into the changing light and form at different times. The last painting in this series is perhaps the most personal, Ancestral Boathouse. Ancestral Boathouse, in its pristing form, had been painted by the artist's mother when he was a child - now 35 years later is in wrack and ruin and falling into the water. Fowler's dextrous display of the manipulation of colour, space and form is also intensely personal, an embedded metaphor for life growth and aging - as the artist reflects on his own family life and mortality.
In concluding this essay I would like to comment on the Canadian-ness of Fowler's work - having immigrated to Canada 25 years ago, I think I am in a privileged position to comment on "What is Canadian?" Fowler is really the archetypal Canadian artist where in the two solitudes run as one - having gone to graduate school in Montreal when Anglophones were leaving - he became passable in French and then went to Paris to paint. These are obvious echoes of Peel, Harris and to me, the quintessential Canadian artist Morrice, urbane, cosmopolitan and intellectual, comfortable in French, grounded in English and quietly driven to create exquisite paintings. Fowler is disciplined and hard working and has continued to develop and grow in status as an artist. The early prognostications of Duval and other critics have proven to be accurate and Fowler must be closely approaching the Pantheon of Contemporary Canadian painters. We the viewers can look forward to a steady production of his beautiful and intelligent paintings as he continues his explorations of colour and light within the tradition of easel painting. In concluding this essay I will leave the last words to the artist.
"The fundamental question which exists in my painting is the tension between the aesthetic construction of landscape not as a neutral territory, but as a social and culturally constructed space in which meaning remains in a flux."
1. Paul Duval, Graham Fowler, Recent Works, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Copyright 1985, Province of Nova Scotia
2. Greta Moray, Mary Pratt, Critical Essay, page 25, McGraw Hill, Ryerson Limited, Toronto, Montreal.
3. Greta Moray, Mary Pratt, Critical Essay, page 25, McGraw Hill, Ryerson Limited, Toronto, Montreal.