Robert Bowers

Ydessa Gallery

Viewing Station, the oldest sculpture in Robert Bowers’ recent show, was built a little over a year ago. Constructed to look like the public-service boxes of rock salt which dot Toronto in the winter, Viewing Station was meant to be placed in Clarence Square Park for a few months. Square and green, the box has translucent plexiglass apertures along one side, and a clear plexiglass hole in the top. Inside is a tableau of a room.

This piece embodies concerns which are presented more succinctly in other pieces in the show. In all of these works, paradoxes of shelter and utility are created in order to heighten our awareness of the necessity of both.

But Viewing Station is hidden away in the back office. The first piece one encounters on entering the show includes a group of common household objects a chair, a table, a window, a silhouetted lamp—which are the heads of a set of long poles mounted horizontally on two sawhorses. (I was reminded instantly of the Shaker practice of hanging furniture up on wall pegs when it was not in use.) The poles and the sawhorses contribute to an atmosphere of practicality, but simultaneously conspire to nullify the very utility to which the objects refer by putting them on show. The objects become emblematic of their potential use. Rendered iconographic, they successfully amplify the utility they represent, and at the same time challenge it.

Similarly, in a number of drawings which accompany this show, useful objects are flattened into icons. Tables, stools and armchairs become two-dimensional indicators of themselves; their function is compromised. Lamps are not plugged into sockets in these skeletal, gray-grounded landscapes. They appear to throw no light—and yet they illuminate dark boulders. The boulders—a symbol for shelter which appears in almost all of Bowers’ work—are also flattened.

Two drawings hung facing each other have sets of windows in them. These two are the most masterful and developed of the drawings, and the least dependent on narrative. To stand between the two opposed drawings is to stand in a room described by their opposing windows. Though they are separate drawings, in looking at them one recalls the room of Viewing Station—but in this case, is inside the room.

Heart Throb, is a large closet which extends out from the wall into the gallery. Inside the closet is a light which, when it is turned on, reveals a solitary shovel; the shovel is too heavy to lift. Again, this can be seen as a symbol for a functional object; the usefulness of the object is pointed up by the impossibility of using the symbol. The shovel sits in a closet which is not a closet, a shelter which is the idea of shelter.

Sandcastle, a huge raft built on oil drums is the most spare and carefully composed of all the works in the show. At one end of the raft is a large canopy with a green fiberglass roof, of the kind one sees at summer cottages and in garage breezeways. Under the canopy a bench is riveted to the raft itself. At the other end of the raft is a small hut, a “sandcastle” made out of metal, with four entrances through which one can stick one’s hands, as a child might have while building crude sandcastles. Weighing about 500 pounds, though, Bowers’ massive sandcastle is both stately and permanent. It is independent and free, able to float where it will, Sandcastle is a shelter for the contemplation of shelter, at once expositive of the world outside it and establishing of the individual inside it. To sit on the bench of the raft is to infuse the crude sandcastle with ritual, to admit that it embodies the original shelter, and to make it waver between having ultimate utility and being an ultimate symbol. But the canopy and bench are a place of ritual as well and therefore also waver; they are a shelter for the fixed meditation upon the object which symbolizes them. These two shelters are in a still and contingent dialogue.

The themes of Bowers’ other pieces are distilled in Sandcastle, and its extraordinary grace in turn informs the other pieces in the gallery. In Bowers’ work, conjecture leaves the place between the artist and the work to reside in the works themselves.

Martha Fleming