London Lantern

Putting the Spotlight on London

Frank Bowling at Poussin Gallery

08/03/2008, By

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Poussin are holding a show of new paintings by the New York and London based Guyana born artist Frank Bowling. Recently elected an RA, he has shown internationally since the mid-Sixties, and has been committed to abstract painting since the Seventies, when he began friendships - which continue to this day - with the leading lights of American abstraction.

Bowling’s paintings are generous - able and willing to accommodate different or even opposed interpretations within their ever-changing amorphous surfaces. Ultimately but not dogmatically abstract, they make space for emotion, allusion to the natural world, and, with both a light and a serious touch, to great works of art history - one of the show’s ‘ponds’ is a distant relation of the watery grave in which Millais’ Ophelia lies.

Their surfaces are ones we look down into, as well as out, across and through; surfaces that also advance toward us, carrying twigs, bottle tops, brush handles and other flotsam from the floor of his studio, buoyed in layers of translucent gel or acrylic paint, and happily denying any too-strict notions of aesthetic purity.

Looking out, across and through these works, they may remind us, never too directly, of landscape and of the efforts of landscape painters - Constable, Turner or their Impressionistic heirs - to capture and make pictorial fleeting effects of light, weather and atmosphere. Looking down into them, though filled with light and space, they can plunge to depths Turner never sunk to, placing us in murky caverns, the strangely aquatic. That they can do both, and more, is crucial.

They can because, in distinction to past masters of weather and water, Bowling’s paintings start pictorially, as paint upon a canvas, and only within his alchemic process do they grow to encompass, or to suggest, their effects of weather, of water, or of emotion; they are not tied to representing any one thing for certain, or in fact to representing anything at all. It is perhaps as alchemy that they are best seen. As the result of a dedicated, intuitive process of discovery, one which summons end products from its materials, that both deeply connect to, and stand apart from, the natural world.

Martin Gayford writes: "In October 1821, John Constable got a letter from his friend Archdeacon Fisher which touched on an angling expedition. Fisher had taken his rod and line to the New Forest where he had found a “fine, deep, broad river with mills roaring backwaters, withy beds, &c”. This reminded him of his painter friend, who in reply produced one of the most famous effusions in art history, about “the sound of water escaping from old mill dams.. willows, old rotten banks, slimy posts and brickwork, I love such things”. His “careless boyhood” on the banks of the Stour had made him a painter.

Constable’s not the only one. Frank Bowling’s boyhood was spent not on the Suffolk/Essex Stour but by the side of the Essequibo in Guyana. And those tropical waters have a way of seeping back into his paintings. Talking about “Piano to Guyana”, one of the most forceful new works in this exhibition, he said as much. “One could be looking at the surface of some turbulent stream. What I intend to do with this art is to imply all the while the turbulence of water and its reflections.”

Constable might have appreciated the piece of wood floating – as it’s hard to resist putting it - in the centre of this picture. It’s not a ‘slimy post’ but a bit of a buddleia bush from Peacock Yard, the slightly Dickensian corner of South London where Bowling has his studio.

The painting was titled after a news item in the Daily Telegraph, where it was reported that some indigenous people up country – an area, by the way, that inspired Conan Doyle’s “Lost World” – had lost their much loved piano, which was devoured by termites. A philanthropist bought them a replacement, but the only way to get it into the interior was by raft, along surging torrents. Bowling’s painting evokes all the thoughts this ‘mad idea’ gave him: the flora flowering by the banks, some of which the locals call bush nuts and use for food, the turbid stream. But – and this is crucial – he wanted to do so without making “an illustration of the notion”.

Not only are Bowlings pictures abstract in appearance, they are abstract in origin. His usual way of beginning is by pouring and dripping paint in a Jackson Pollock-like manner. After a while, from these marks, certain forms, memories or associations emerge. The picture hints to the painter that it wants to go in a certain direction, and so he carries on. It’s a process of quest, sometimes almost akin to the free-association of psychology. A blob that appeared in “Shrill” struck the painter as a roughly-sketched head of his mother."

3rd to 26th April
Poussin Gallery
Block K
13 Bell Yard Mews
175 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3UW
+44 (0)20 7403 4444

Wednesday to Saturday: 1 pm to 7 pm

Tube: London Bridge

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