New York

Harry Bowers

Hansen Fuller Goldeen

Harry Bowers’ recent color photographs are composite fabrications, layers of apparel, cut-out constructions, paper mannequins, and black-and-white portraits (with spray paint) presented in a 40 inch by 50 inch format. In contrast to his earlier works—sequential, life-sized articles of clothing arranged in an autobiographical/anthropomorphic format—these photographs are diverse in subject matter and more varied in appearance.

Bowers has always reflected a painterly disposition, displaying lush, sensual hues. In the current works he layers materials, creating a trompe l’oeil effect in which clothing is seen through cut outs and contorted, copulating mannequins (in the image of the artist and his wife) float against fabric backgrounds or are posited in front of photographic portraits. If his earlier pieces looked like pages from Vogue, the recent pictures suggest a New Wave sensibility, particularly in the selected use of blue and red spray paints, and the calculated rawness of the black-and-white images.

Unlike the previous, intentionally flat-patterned pictures, these works maintain an artificial depth of field. The layers are constructed, pressed under glass, and photographed with a specially made large format camera for maximum detail and spatial illusion. Visually, Bowers addresses the issue of photographic reality. While the tableaux are obviously fabrications, the articles of clothing are so lifelike and rendered with such fidelity that they almost appear as collage elements rather than photographic interpretations.

Bowers is a consummate craftsman; the visual effects he achieves in a mammoth format are impressive. Nonetheless, I am ambivalent about the work, for, although his images are unique within the photographic genre, his formal concerns—implied physicality and surface fetishism (making tape demarcations and visible edges)—are really well worn painterly mannerisms transposed to a new medium. Equally questionable is a superficial concern for autobiographical form. Fornicating mannequins may seem personal, but they suggest a pseudo intimacy rather than anything validly diaristic. Bowers’ surrogate characters are clever and moderately titillating, but not particularly meaningful.

The most successful works juxtapose mannequins against large photographic portraits. By reintroducing the photographic portraits. By reintroducing the photographic picture, Bowers creates a visual, layered tension that counterpoints two visual forms, one perceived as evidentially “real,” the other understood as a constructed reality. These tableaux transcend the purely pictorial and fashion-oriented seductiveness of the other works, achieving an intensity of image reminiscent of Francis Bacon.

Bowers’ pictures generally do not stand up to intellectual reflection, but they are charged with an extreme physicality that few other photographs can match. Furthermore, they are technically straight prints that visualize new photographic terrain with a bon vivant’s sensibility. Bowers may be a bit coy and sometimes too facile, but his humorous (and unthreatening) renderings of sex and fashion are a welcome diversion from the purposeful banality characteristic to much of contemporary photography.

Hal Fischer