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.
Graham's interest in the representational possibilities of water was first expressed in 1977 in his Organic Life Series, which took as its subject the streams in the Nova Scotia woods that he had frequented since he was a young boy. These paintings, with their depictions of lush foliage, wet rocks and moving water, formed the basis of his subsequent oeuvre and his national reputation as one of Canada's most important landscape painters. While Graham has painted numerous other subjects since then, notably a four-panel commissioned work of Claude Monet's water garden, Garden at Giverny (1990), and a recent series of large tropical underwater scenes, he frequently returns—as he does in this exhibition-- to the rivers of Nova Scotia, which provide him with particular forms of light and colour: the tannin-tinted water, and the ripples of the current as it flows under the tree canopy and tumbles over the shelf-like rock formations exactly suited to his painting needs.
In the catalogue for his 2002 Mendel Art Gallery exhibition, Graham explained why these river subjects were so important to him:
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 [and] 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 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, there 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 Graham's water paintings, the viewer experiences the composition from somewhere near the middle of the river, looking back over the shimmering surface until the water disappears among the trees and foliage of the riverbanks in the distance. The horizon is blocked by the trees, which in turn are cut off by the top of the canvas, their reflections stirred by the ripples of the current. This combination of reflections, the constrained space and the way in which the paint is applied--Graham compares this last to the pixilated effect of a photograph—creates a compelling sense of ambiguity; the painting as naturalistic space, transparency and reflection, and at the same time a series of abstract patterns and flattened surfaces with the eye moving easily from one state to the other. This is what gives the paintings their particular contemplative intensity, where all the senses are engaged by these intimate and private spaces, created by the trees, rocks and water, and all the associated formations of light, colour and, by implication, sounds. Each painting presents its own particular set of sensations: the water gently rippling through the woods in Still Waters and Colour Pool, or tumbling over the glistening rock terraces in Rock and Water. Abstraction and representation fuse in the fluidity of water and light.