David Bowes

Mario Diacono Gallery

Of all recent art-making strategies, deception, whether manifested in the physical, the cerebral, or the emotional, has played perhaps the most prominent role in the shaping of an ’80s sensibility. It can be seen in just about every “hot” art style of the decade: from Julian Schnabel’s mock-heroic posturing to George Condo’s supposed love affair with his palette and Philip Taaffe’s visual distortions of Bridget Riley and Barnett Newman. Recently, deception has played a part in the art world’s romance with age—the tattered, torn, and worn look, as exemplified by the Starn Twins’ taped photocollages and by Holt Quentel’s acid-washed tarps. What is surprising about this phenomenon is how drastically it has altered the face of painting, which has gone through the oddest kind of metamorphosis—from pure and truthful to staged and hypocritical.

David Bowes is a painter who came up through the ranks of PostNeoAbEx artists, whose use of rough edges and apparent attraction to the distant past made for an interesting if somewhat naive body of work, usually heavy on paint but none too long on smarts. But Bowes was and is different. His figuration sets up a narrative, and his figures become characters inside a fictional space. His objective seems not so much to ape, but rather to create a setting, a room, a scene of life, in which figures can move and be part of a real world. More recently, Bowes has taken to a more abstract brand of painting, in which light colors, mixed only with white, are painted upon canvases (often shaped) in continuous beaded configurations. The figure has simply disappeared into the sunset or into the sky.

In the work exhibited here, Bowes brings his two central painting concerns together under the auspices of a single physical object. These five paintings are based upon a group of small collages the artist has made with pictures and images from National Geographic and other sundry magazines. Each of the paintings takes its image from some sort of physical representation of either mystery or mysticism, using deception as a subject rather than as a strategy. In doing so, Bowes has uncovered a wealth of material, as well as a seemingly perfect vehicle for the articulation of his artistic concerns. For him the trick and the act of trickery become as one, and by placing that trick front and center, the dense, intelligent strategies for his act as trickster become internalized.

Miraculum, 1988, is a small painting with a distressed yellow ground, into which has been set the form of an imaginary creature: a kind of yellow-brown spotted and striped snake with a giraffy head, a full set of teeth, and the face of a gnome. The piece tells of the fallacy of depiction; its central character is featured within a kind of a frame, which itself is within the proverbial frame of its canvas. Two other works make good use of a traditional metaphor for deception—the mysterious woman. Rubáiyát, 1988, is a boldly painted, almost op image of a veiled and hooded woman. She suggests an often-told legend, an ever-embellished “story” in which truth plays only the most nominal role. Fata Morgana, 1988, the best work in the show, does it one better. It depicts an apparition of a nude woman grafted onto a landscape, with sections of a map “tattooed” onto her body. Aside from its function as a capsule history of early painting concerns (the figure, the landscape, the portrait, the nude, the woman, etc.), its view of image as mirage becomes a painting of painting itself: the work creates a bogus vitality, casually linking women’s sexuality with the earth’s creative capacity.

Christian Leigh