New York

Nancy Bowen

Annina Nosei Gallery

These days, Louise Bourgeois–inspired sculpture seems ubiquitous, but Nancy Bowen gives a newly sharpened edge to biomorphic sculpture through a finely calibrated use of diverse materials such as glass, clay, bronze, wax, and synthetic hair; witty and pointed extrapolations of form; a cross-pollination of craft traditions with specifically sculptural concerns; but especially through the intensity of her investment in the by now stock thematics of “the body.”

Typical of Bowen’s concerns and methods is Aural Obsession, 1992–93, one of the largest of the 12 sculptures here (there were also four monoprints). A four-legged steel armature raises a clutch of Bourgeois-esque organic shapes in red clay. One reviewer saw them as a “big welcoming bosom,” though thanks to their small openings they looked more like bladders, all the more so as one of those openings seemed to be expelling (or perhaps ingesting) a multitude of tiny, white-glass shapes much like sea animals of some kind, but apparently modeled on the cochlea, a part of the inner ear. These dozens of similar shapes, each with a knot of wire filament around it, flow along an appendage to the metal armature and spill out along the floor. Given the work’s title (and the rather esoteric information about the cochlea), this must he a sculpture “about” hearing—a rare thing. But it is not, I would say, about sound, although it becomes easy to imagine some rather crude blowing sound being produced above, and the glassy tinkling of the little cochleas as they cascade into one another below. Beyond that, the work seems to understand hearing as something that the body undergoes or performs in a forcefully physical way, an involuntary incorporation and expulsion, a vibration or shuddering of organs at some autonomic level below conscious sensation: a “visceral hearing,” as the title of another work here has it. And it projects a body that exists solely for this complex and intricate operation.

It is this pure but never simple organic activity that is the consistent subject of Bowen’s sculptures. In Seven Aspects: Breathing, 1993, seven small, dark, twisted bronze shapes “blow” lanternlike glass bulbs that look too large for them, and whose color gradually mutates from opaque white at the base to transparency at the crest. These glass forms have been made by blowing the glass into loose nets of thin copper wire; swelling protuberances emerge through the wire restraints. Occasionally a bit of fugitive wire has been melted away by the heat, but left its mark in the swell of the glass. In this delicate and punctual dissolution of a restraint through its own self-consumption, one identifies the trait of a sensation experienced just at the limit of endurance. In the recognition of such affective intensities lies the pleasure of Bowen’s work.

Barry Schwabsky