New York

John Bowman

Lang & O'Hara Gallery

Painting on wooden doors, either singly or in pairs, John Bowman apparently finds inspiration in the grain itself. Through insubstantial applications of paint—sometimes just a series of dots—he conjures entire landscapes with a remarkable range of atmospheric qualities. He can do this because the surface itself serves as a portal; the eye travels both across and through these doors, and paint is the handle that opens them up.

But the real poetry in these “paintings”—and one uses the word cautiously, because at his best Bowman’s touch is very light—is the way the unpainted surface is allowed to take over. The painting is really only a point of departure—an invitation to get lost in the grain. In the simplest works, a line of painted dots suggests the random lights—of cars, street lamps, distant towns, or a numinous desert night. Skyscape and landscape—clouds above, ridges, plateaux, or a dry lake-bed below—are suggested but never forced. Bowman’s renderings play off the two-dimensional surface. Are we looking at a picture of the desert, or just a rather minimal abstraction—a piece of wood splattered with little dots of paint?

In the more ambitious images, however, the wood functions as a different sort of metaphor. When Bowman depicts an amusement park in winter or an off-season beachside boardwalk, his wood surface calls to mind weathered plywood or peeling, sun-bleached signage—references that function independently from the representation, but reinforce it through a simple textural metaphor.

Unfortunately, Bowman’s drawing, at times, can be perfunctory. He is particularly clumsy where figuration is concerned; his characters have an eye-catching lack of subtlety, which, married with the precision of landscapes such as Boardwalk, 1991, suggests imagery worked from photographs. These moments of bad draftsmanship irritate and detract; they bar the viewer from crossing through the metaphoric “door.” The unpeopled landscape of Abandoned Facility, 1990, is the most carefully worked, recalling (with heavy-handed irony) the sublime landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. But overall it’s the suggestion of human presence rather than actual figures that gives Bowman’s landscapes real strength, recalling the similarly haunted (and similarly awkward) world of Edward Hopper, in which light, texture, and composition speak quite clearly and forcefully of a certain emotional state, regardless of figuration. In the most successful landscapes (say that of Closing, 1990) the artist forgoes the literal rendering of people and place, allowing his figures to dissolve, ghost-like, into the texture of aged billboards and artfully worn wood.

Justin Spring