Astrid Bowlby: Sample(d)(r)
Through January 18th
By Daniel Gerwin
At some point in their development, many artists feel the need to chart a new course. The work they make might have established their reputation and provided them with a career, but it can eventually feel like a trap. Some artists never have this experience and continue to refine their work toward transcendence (think Agnes Martin), while others may go on autopilot (Jeff Koons, anyone?), becoming manufacturers of a product that is understood in advance of its making.
Astrid Bowlby has broken open her practice in her new show at Gallery Joe. A portion of the work is exactly as expected: predominantly black, dense and intricately worked ink drawings that beguile with their sense of light, mysterious surfaces and depths. Strange Weather (version 1, a and b), for example, is reminiscent of coral reef in its play of values shifting through convoluted forms. But the rest of the show is a surprise: delicately colorful pencil drawings and vivid works in gouache and acrylic, with a wild card made from cat hair and chewing gum.
Bowlby used stencils to create her pencil works, but they do not feel removed from her hand. In the best of them, such as Pencil Stencil (version 3, a and b), each color seems to float free of the others, generating a wondrous sense of space given the nine inch square format. Her gouache and acrylic paintings are playful silhouettes of her cat, Calvin, resembling a wheelbarrow or a one-legged chicken. At present, light is absent from these paintings and working with color can still be a clunky affair for Bowlby, but in Calvin as wheelbarrow she finds a chromatic relationship with delightful buzz.
Sample(d)(r) is defined by yet another innovation in Bowlby’s practice: she has made each piece twice, and only one from each pair is for sale. She has undertaken this painstaking effort to solve a problem she is lucky to have: her works always sell. The downside is her sense of loss, and the inability to keep what she has made long enough to ponder and build forward. So for this show, she has birthed twins, and she intends to continue this method for some years to come. The separation of each twosome has raised interesting issues. A number of collectors have said they feel especially connected to Bowlby because the twin is still with her, the matched pieces functioning as a conduit between themselves and the artist. Significantly, in an art market based more than ever on price tags and consumption, it is splendid that there are some things that cannot be had.
The new moves in this show have been bubbling for a long while in Bowlby’s mind. Trained as a sculptor, her early three-dimensional work often had textured encaustic surfaces, a clear forebear of her lumpy new gouache and acrylics. She has also handled color before, most recently in her 2011 installation Snag at the Michener Museum in Doylestown, PA. But the decisive departures in this current show were largely catalyzed by Bowlby’s battle with cancer, now almost three years in the past. The rigors of treatment interrupted the pace of her studio process, leaving Bowlby in a position to consider all she had done and where her work was going. Sample(d)(r) contains references to other artists’ meditations on death, including The coal black sea (version 1, a and b) which quotes Lou Reed’s 1992 album Magic and Loss, and I love you more than one day (version 1, a and b) which borrows from Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking. In Bowlby’s new work, ultimately, the feeling is less one of looking somberly at death and more the buoyant liberation that can come from understanding one’s mortality and deciding that all bets are off: there is really nothing to lose.
Daniel Gerwin is a painter living in Philadelphia. He is a newly selected participant in the Art Writing Workshop sponsored by the International Art Critics Association/USA Section and Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation, and has an upcoming solo show at Abington Art Center opening in February 2014.