Still Lifes Huffing and Puffing and Dark
By Barry Nemett
The work of Pam Bowers is dark, visceral, and strange. It is not beautiful—at least not in a traditional or picturesque way--but it is compelling, tough, and often, hauntingly poetic. Most of her paintings are modest in size, andher genre of choice is still life—not the scale or art form that most paintersexplore if they are looking to make big statements. But that is exactlywhat she does.
In her early twenties, Bowers worked as an outdoor adventure leader inthe Rocky Mountains, where she was deeply affected by the intensity ofnature. Later, during a visit to Indonesia, she experienced the linkbetween human art, ritual, and the environment. “Poignant experiences,” she states, “such as witnessing a buffalo sacrifice and cremation funeral inthe jungle enriched my work.” Speaking about the cremation ceremoniesthat she observed” in which the soul of the deceased rides the buffalo toan afterlife,” Bowers describes how she was deeply moved by the smells ofburning flesh, the sight of blood, animal hide, and mud that became part of the humid reality and meaning of the rain forest for her.
These experiences, and others like it that merge science, culture,mythology, and art, inform the paintings and drawings on the walls of the Bowery Gallery in her show entitled, Memento Mori (June 19-July 7th). The title translates as “remember death,” but Bowers is quick to point outthat, although one of the traditions of still life painting involves the subjectmatter serving as a reminder of life passing away, she is not interested inmoralizing about how, as she puts it, “death awaits you--everything rots—and all that." Bowers can speak eloquently about the tradition of vanitas still life—which typically addresses a cast of characters that includes skulls,hour glasses, overturned and often, broken, wine glasses, fading flowers,burning candles, and other objects that speak to life's fleeting nature. But this reality arouses in her a sense of awe and wonder, not sadness (well,maybe a little), so basically, she strives to celebrate, not lament, it. Andshe strives to open it up, not limit its meaning.
Referring to the small studies of birds and other game that she regularly portrays, such as the fish pictured on the announcement for this show, she does talk about a certain pathos she feels while painting these once living creatures. But she adds that she also experiences a weird joy in the process of painting them, because she feels like she is bringing them back to life. “It sounds odd, I know,” she admits.
In her painting, Awakening of the Hydra, some of Bowers' cast of characters float to the surface in glowing, unearthly, Rembrandtesque light and shadow. Leaping or flying fish drink from a spurt of water that surges inexplicably from a pond or lake (it could be the sea, but I don't think hydras hang out there), the water arching like a white rainbow over a slimy, mythical hydra. A frog and other animal specimens encased in glass jars are stacked cheerleader-style in the center of the action. My description may make it sound like Alice from Wonderland might have been invited to this party, but I don't see her showing up. Or if she did, I fear that her fate might be to wind up getting stuck in one of those glass jars, never to climb out of the rabbit hole into which she descended. In Alice's daylight world, she'd escape the jar pretty quickly and move on to another goofy, absurd, exhausting adventure. If, on the other hand, she found herself in the hydra's macabre surrounds, where sky and water are as thick as jelly, I'm not so sure. Bowers sees her jars as places of protection, where specimens are provided a reprieve from deterioration and the kind of hectic commotion fraught with danger(s) that her active, uncontained creatures must endure. But, of course, the jars also represent death and, at best, a lack of freedom. Not what I'd wish for Alice. Here, the artist gives us something more in the line of Edgar Allen Poe than Lewis Carroll, something thrillingly eerie and hard to define, by floating us into the black, ambiguous waters of the sublime.
Ambiguity. In Pam Bowers' paintings there are no fussy details. Her images state their case through the overall impression they make, forms set into, not beside or on top of, the palpable air breathed by other forms. She finds solid, emphatic texture in atmosphere and mood more than in the actual things she paints, which she seems to look past so she can get right to the good stuff—her fluid, scary stories. Sure, the forms in Bowers' paintings have a weighty presence, yet, as we look at them, they seem to disappear into a thick, smelly atmosphere. The visible becomes invisible, making way for an underlying force or energy that informs the world she sees and feels and, in turn, makes us see and feel.
In Separation, for example, I spend little time taking inventory by identifying the individual elements she paints, and a lot of time absorbed in the overall experience that she sucks me into. I am reminded of being on The Whip and The Cyclone, rides that terrified me as a kid and made me nauseous, but that I stood in line for over and over again till my quarters ran out. The rich colors and textures of “Separation" are irresistible, but I wouldn't want to be alone inside it at night. Perhaps it is not surprising that memories and thrills of childhood fears come to my mind when I look at Pam Bowers' large paintings, since her own memories and narratives come to her mind when she paints them. She doesn't initially paint with the intent of spinning a narrative or tackling a big theme. Most of her ambitious constructs begin as simple, directly seen still lifes, but as she continues to work on these canvases, they often take on a new, active life. Observation invites invention. Her husband, the painter, David Voros, has observed that there are two aspects of experience in her work, "that of perceiving or witnessing events and that of making sense of the events later on." The individual elements that she poses and lights, as well as the relationships that she notices occurring between them, suggest metaphors that, in turn, evolve into improvised visual dramas. “I can place an over-ripe fig next to a cabbage,” she states, “and the tactile and color qualities alone—squishy versus crispy—invite comparisons that can create a sense of story for me.” She sees these images as metaphorical dramas with the still life serving as stage set.
The set is sweeping in Dreams of Fishes, Bowers' largest and most recent painting. It's a traditional still life in that it's mostly an arrangement of foodstuff and crockery spread across a countertop. But then, many of the biggest forms hang up above. There is the occasional pedestrian moment, such as the two huge pitchers that flank the composition like mismatched parentheses, but mostly, the items that fill the image look like they got blown out of the sea and decided to form a stormy community on land—or more precisely, on a table. I like how Bowers takes me from here to there, never allowing me to relax into anticipating what comes next. The left side of the painting is altogether different from the right. The artist presses my nose up against some forms within the opulent interior space, other times she shoots me far back towards a more simplified, yet turbulent, landscape that is hard to make out. She clusters many of her exhausted actors at the table's center, yet isolates and arches above them most of the main characters. The painting is too big for a still life, and there is too much going on, and that's the good news; the artist is not afraid of overdoing it. It is a quirky undertaking, and I mean that in the very best sense. Its reach and risks are exhilarating. There are dead fish, and while there are loads of bright colors, Bowers' signature darks are ever present. Nonetheless, this is a fun, whacky picture, full of extravagance. Quick, send Alice a dinner invitation. If she shows, she'll lighten up the already high-flying proceedings.
On the other hand, the set is minimal and morose in Three Pigs. While one cannot help but equate it to the famous fairy tale in which at least one of the main characters lives happily ever after, this trio of piglets in glass vessels makes for a decidedly grim viewing experience. No brick houses here. Diverging from the script, Bowers comes up with a new building material that is as ineffective as straw or sticks. The artist is content to portray the poorly planned homes in the most cursory and elementary manner imaginable. The pigs live (?) inside glass houses that are way too small and that even a little, good wolf could break, if not with a huff or puff, certainly with a stone. A solid heave with a pebble would probably do it. A few lines indicate the enclosures. A lot more than that went into the swiney siblings, one looking more heartbreakingly miserable than the other. First and foremost is gesture. All three of the poignant pigs are uniquely sad in their contorted states, their plight sealed by the undersized vessels. Seeing them stuffed in there as they are, my body grieves.
This is not an easy body of work, and Memento Mori is not an easy show to take in. But it is a show that should be seen. The paintings in it deal compassionately with themes like decay and creation, violence and tenderness, death and life, ugliness and beauty. Most exhibitions stay away from elemental issues like these. Pam Bowers faces them head-on.
Barry Nemett, painter and writer
Chair, Maryland College Institute of Art