The sculpture of Dean Bowen
By Andrew Stephens
An enormous feline stands still and alert, projecting an air of concentrated focus. This lion-sized animal is not on the prowl, or a hunt. It is merely there in the world, its presence quiet and respectful. Happiness-contentment with what is happening-manifests in the here and now, evidenced by this benign, elongated animal. It is titled, simply, Cat (2012). Unweighted by any forceful allegory, this creature is precisely what it appears to be. And that is more than enough: wholly being in this moment.
Dean Bowen's three-dimensional works-animals, people, houses, vehicles-share this calm poise, and are invested with an integrity and meaningfulness that deepens with a viewer's prolonged or repeated observation. Modelled intuitively with the evident mark of the artist's hand, these sculptures converse gently with each other. More broadly, they conduct a clear dialogue across artforms, taking in Bowen's sculptural, printmaking and painting practice. Together, their individual stories might form an over-arching narrative that reaches out from another world. At the same time, they are subtly layered with references to contemporary social, political and ecological concerns that are very real in this one.
With a commitment to art-making extending back into his childhood and teens, Bowen's work has long been noted for its refreshingly direct character, graced with a particular sense of serenity and solitude. Collectively and individually, these works speak to a shared humanity and a kinship between all sentient beings in the natural world. They invite not only the considered gaze but perhaps promote a desire for sincere connection. In particular, Bowen's sculptures share a lineage with a multitude of artists throughout history who have portrayed the human in one form or another, prompting viewers to play creative and imaginative roles in thinking about what is so close to their hearts and minds: knowing ourselves.1
He is a serious driver and is comfortably at one with his machine, which functions as a sort of extension of his body, rounded, organic and softly textured. This driver is also fully engaged with his mission, for he certainly seems to have one, such is his air of focussed intent. This is not someone who is easily distracted. Where is he travelling to, and why? His single-mindedness is evident, yet the nature of this purposeful body/car language remains an enigma. Locomotion, arriving at a predetermined destination: this is where he finds meaningfulness, in the serious business of piloting his way into a clearly imagined future, albeit one a bystander can only imagine.
Dean Bowen was born in Maryborough in 1957. It was a long and circuitous route through exploring his art practice that eventually led him to this sculpture, Serious Driver (1995), his first work in bronze. This small sculpture of a man in his car sprang from Bowen's memories of driving along the highway from Melbourne to Maryborough, as well as his daily trips around the city suburbs between his home and studio. Making this work was a significant event, for it provoked a new and all-consuming interest: bronze casting, and associated assemblage-style sculpture, have been a mainstay of his practice ever since.
Bowen left Maryborough as a sixteen-year-old, when he began studies at RMIT in Melbourne, receiving a Diploma in Fine Arts for printmaking in 1976. He later received a Master of Arts Degree from Monash University in 1993, and in 1999 a PhD at Monash University in Extending Printmaking. Before all this, though, his secondary education experiences were deeply formative. The art department in a then-dilapidated building at the Maryborough Technical College brimmed with what Bowen describes as a 'great bohemian atmosphere'. His mentors there included Neil Leveson, whose primary interests were in printmaking and filmmaking, and Wes Lancaster, whose interests were in ceramics and sculpture. Bowen had little interest in sculpture at the time, but the technical and creative diversity of printmaking drew him in entirely; he was devoted to it. He dabbled in the three-dimensional in secondary school and then in his RMIT diploma studies, which required an elective in sculpture-even then, while he made a few sculptures, he remained obsessed with the world of print.2
Completing his diploma, Bowen worked in commercial printing full-time for about twelve years, his creative life being consigned to the evenings and weekends, with painting becoming his primary focus. In 1988, Leveson became the director of the Australian Print Workshop and Bowen set up a studio there. In the subsequent years, Bowen assisted Leveson, making lithographs for other artists, as well as creating his own lithographs and etchings. He gathered confidence and creative prowess and by 1989 took an enormous leap of faith when he was retrenched from his commercial printing work: he became a full-time artist. This choice led indirectly to fostering his interest in sculpture.
Bowen was ripe for what he describes as 'wonderful things' with this opportunity to immerse himself in art-making. His work developed and he began to garner some applause: in 1991 he was awarded three separate grants and in 1994 won two major print prizes-the Fremantle Print Award and the Mainichi Broadcasting System Prize in the Osaka Print Triennale.3 After Leveson died in 1992, Bowen used his grants to travel to France again to work with established printmakers. These extended trips (1990-93) took him to Lyon, at Atelier URDLA, and to Paris where he spent six months working at Atelier Franck Bordas, arriving on the doorstep with a folio of prints under his arm: 'I just went in there cold and Franck was happy to collaborate with me. We hit it off.' That studio was 'an orchestra of artists' with Bordas 'in the middle conducting it all, with the door-bell buzzing, and people from all walks of life, drawn to the studio like moths to a flame. Wonderful things happen there.' 4
Bowen did not know at the time that Bordas had done printing with one of his heroes, the French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-85), founder of the Art Brut movement. Bordas' grandfather, Fernand Mourlot, had printed for Dubuffet during the war years and had made the introduction between his grandson, Franck, and the famed artist. The Bordas library included many books on Dubuffet and it was here that Bowen encountered his sculptural works, couched within the broader context of Dubuffet's approach to art and creativity through his interest in isolated, unknown 'outsider' artists. Bowen was not only interested in Dubuffet's visual work but also strongly influenced by his philosophical approach in Art Brut: 'I started to think I really needed to diversify in what I was making. I had already made a lot of prints but I really needed to be a more creative artist. I needed to get into painting and sculpture. The penny dropped with sculpture about that time.'
By chance, an extensive exhibition of sculpture by Colombian artist Fernando Botero (1938-) was at that time being held in Paris-the 1992-93 show Botero aux Champs-Elysées, Sculptures Monumentales presented by La Mairie de Paris and Didier Imber Fine Arts. Bowen responded enthusiastically to the humour and the bulbous oversizing of Botero's bronzes. Around the same time there was a substantial retrospective of the work of another of Bowen's heroes, Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-66) at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
On his return to Melbourne in 1993, Bowen started making assemblage sculpture out of found objects, and by 1995 that first bronze, Serious Driver was in the world, followed soon afterwards by Man with a Hat (1995) and Echidna on my Head (1995). In 1997 came The Little Man, Owl on my Head, and Boy with Birds. Many of these were direct re-workings drawn from his printmaking works, and the people in them share a strong sense of good-naturedness, sometimes described as naïve or innocent: these figures have 'the unpretentiousness of country school chums, and are imbued with the natural optimism which characterises Bowen's art'. 5
Since then, Dean Bowen has not stopped making sculpture.
This enduring arm of his practice has had some unexpected consequences, one of which is Bowen's development of crucial, collaborative relationships with foundry technicians. Over many years, most of Bowen's bronze sculptures have been produced with Bill Perrin and staff at Perrin Sculpture Foundry in the Melbourne suburb of Cheltenham, using lost wax and direct burn-out techniques. Bowen says his method of working is to start with hand-modelling the sculptures in clay or wax. This is often done at the foundry itself, where he is surrounded by all the activity of the working environment that translates the wax or clay models into bronze: the roar of burning gas, the welding sparks and flashes, the noise of angle-grinders, mould-making and the pouring of liquid bronze.
'This cacophony of sights and sounds has become an integral part of the creation of my sculptures. This atmosphere stands in direct contrast to the isolation of my studio practice in both painting and printmaking.' 6
III. Big little
Hands on hip pockets, the man in Echidna on my Head (1995) stands passively, with an air of awkwardness. He waits and wonders. After all, there is a small monotreme nestled on his bristly thatch of hair. This calm passenger registers as a centre of balance whose function, perhaps, is as a sort of totem, a sympathetic daemon/guiding spirit, embodying the essence of the man standing below. Curiously, the entirely reasonable discomfort that might be expected from this spiky hitchhiker is in abeyance.
Bowen's grandmother had a strong influence on his life, especially during his growing-up years in Maryborough. An unusual and humorous person, she filled her house with animals, and crammed the rooms with all kinds of individually collected items and bric-a-brac. Bowen would sit with her at the kitchen table and they would talk. One Christmas in the early 1990s, to amuse her grandson, she drew an image of him on a balloon, paying special attention to his spiky hair. On the balloon she wrote 'echidna on my head'. Bowen thought it a funny, great idea and it became a sort of personal trademark, a shorthand that connected him with the animal world towards which he so strongly gravitates. A couple of years after this incident, echidnas appeared in his etchings, initially in a small colour etching Echidna on My Head (1994). Later, the echidna image developed into a way of exploring conservation and animal extinction issues. Echidna on My Head (1995) was made as a bronze and has been followed by sculptures such as Landscape with Echidna (2001), The Man who Loved Echidnas (2009), Young Girl with Echidnas (2009), Landscape with Perching Owl and Echidna (2014), Echidna with Playful Bird (2020) and many others.
Bowen's initial foray into sculpture was underscored by a desire to broaden his repertoire and avoid getting into a rut, but he was also intrigued by the more challenging idea of bringing his work and ideas more fully into the physical world, to explore the relative advantages of three versus two dimensions. In doing so, his work entered into a long-running conversation conducted across the pantheon of art history itself: for the lineage of sculpture had always, until the 20th century, been written in the context of painting, with arguments mounted about the superiority of one over the other-essentially a war between sight and touch. The fallout, in part, has meant that the category of 'sculpture' has transitioned into a more expansive definition of 'three-dimensional work'.
This 'expanded field' 7 may have toppled traditional sculpture from the pedestal, but it also brought with it a suspicion attached to figurative sculpture. This unease, expressed since scholars began to write about even the very earliest statuary, charges that sculptors have sought, through the merits of mass and volume, to render physical solidity and the material density of bodies in a way that imitates reality.8 Figurative sculpture, too, has been accused of being a repository for the heroic and the monumental, so crammed full of patriarchal statuary are Western urban parks, city squares and town hall footpaths. While the 'unabashed monumentality' and symbolism seen in the origins of traditional sculpture are undeniable, sculpture's post-19th century history has largely been about moving away from conventional styles, subject matter and materials and becoming 'unmonumental, purposefully unheroic and fragmented'.9
In Bowen's work, attention to reality, the heroic and the monumental is wonderfully remote, even in his many commissions for large sculptures in public spaces across Australia. His focus, by contrast, is on activating in the viewer a powerfully imaginative realm: Bowen's people, animals and objects-often including fusions between one or the other-have a curious and appealing humility about them, perhaps a consequence of being sited in a reality distant to our own, a parallel or alternate universe. There, space and dimensions are warped, just as the figures created by Giacometti or Dubuffet seem to be viewed in some other place where materiality is compressed, stretched and temporally distorted. This bending of space in Bowen's imagined realms helps explain the strong relationship between his sculptures and his prints, where a 'graphic silhouette' echoes in what are 'essentially flat, frontal works'.10
This is evidence of why Bowen describes the various expressions of his practice-printmaking, painting and sculpture-as being equally important to each other, strongly overlapping. Working between forms helps to keep his energies fresh and to provide new perspectives on the recurring themes he explores. Sometimes, for example, he will have a burst of assemblage-making that in turn affects his paintings, prints or bronze sculptures; at other times, the materials he works with will themselves force solutions by virtue of their inherent qualities and restrictions. Often, too, simply following his instincts rather than taking a more analytical posture is a highly effective creative tool.
Bowen's first large-scale sculpture was The Big Little Man (1999), based on The Little Man (1997). Despite its scale, it is anything but monumental or heroic. In this instance, Bowen could see a larger version of the original in his mind and made it in clay without limiting himself-even though he had never made anything this large before. Cast with the support of Fundere Fine Art Foundry, this man takes up more than two square metres, and has been described as being 'like an intricate landscape with hills and hollows', the wide-brimmed hat 'a conscious landscape study in its own right'.11 When The Big Little Man was installed briefly at Station Pier and Victoria Dock in 1999 to be photographed, visitors paid much attention to touching him: they 'rubbed his surfaces, fingered his depressions, hugged him, and photographed themselves in his company'.12 He elicited similar responses when he was exhibited in an international sculpture exhibition 4èmes Rencontres de Sculpture d'Art Contemporain, Les cinq continents in Fontainebleau, France, in 2001.
Today, this Big Little Man is at Canberra's Petrie Plaza, and along with his friends Man with a Hat (1995) and the male and female versions of Hamilton Farmer (2012, 2013), he seems surprised at our attention: this affable man spreads out his hands upon his chest with an air of 'who me?'. What might an ordinary man such as he possibly have to offer the more sophisticated, the cultured or the world-wise? In that humility, this country man (in his preposterous but sensible hat) brings unfettered happiness: a simple message of human connection where layers of urban pretence are shrivelled by his gaze. He is in the world lightly, yet sure-footedly, and his identity is uncomplicated. Despite his blockish physiognomy and the enigma surrounding the nature of the world he might occupy, he is anything but alienating. He is of a lineage that yearns for human understanding, a family tree of sorts that stretches far into the past, for it is certainly true the history of sculpture is also a history of the human body,13 and a history of gazes.14
IV. Here are the people
Explorations of identity, filtered through memory and manifested in posture and facial expression, are central to many of Dean Bowen's sculptures featuring the human form. While these people-for they are distinct characters-seem to emerge from that strange world discussed above where spatial realms are flat and compressed, they are also expressive in their bodies and faces.
Imagined individuals such as Man Waving (1998), Aeroplane Boy (2000), The Lady with Flowers (2001) and Young Girl (2003), as with many of Bowen's figures, are marked with an air of the solitary. Occasionally, in works such as The Flyers (II) (2005), Bus (2010) or Big Sister (2009) and Little Sister (2010), they are gently enmeshed with what would otherwise be an inanimate object but, in Bowen's hands, these things become possibly sentient, or at least organic. If Bowen's figures do have dialogue with others, it tends to be of an interspecies nature: Boy with Birds (1997), Young Girl with Echidnas (2009), Girl with Birds (2012), Boy with Owl and Playful Echidnas (2012). Consistently, the use of texture, colour and simplicity of gesture and expression afford all these characters a unique presence. It has been observed that figures like The Little Man (1997) or The Third Man (2001), which have both emerged from Bowen's prints, share characteristics with the 'everyman' from drama.15 That may be true, yet that quality in the hands of Bowen is in no way generic.
Memories inform much of this work, playing a central role in guiding the enduring themes Bowen explores. Often, he will have half a dozen of these themes simmering in the background as he works across multiple pieces, with both significant and more mundane events from daily life lodging in his artistic vocabulary. Such moments are often drawn out 'longingly in conscious reverie'.16 They emerge mainly from his country upbringing spending happy times with his parents and grandmother, exploring bushland and riding his bike around town. Indeed, as has been observed, such is the disarming simplicity, directness or poignancy of Bowen's characters, and 'such is the compassion with which the artist records his chronicle of the lives and times of these personages, that we become the listeners in a private theatre of Bowen's imagination'.17
Along with his recollections of times past, Bowen is open to a strong element of happenstance, especially in his assemblage-style works, which comprise about a tenth of his sculptures and include many personages.18 In his travels about the world, particularly within his local orbit from studio to home to main street, the happy accident and the unexpected encounter tend to inform the way he formulates his themes, consequently charging individual works with strong identities. While he sometimes collects roadside materials on the mere off-chance thy might form part of an assemblage, on other occasions a piece is constructed as a direct result of what is to hand-one of his studio benches is covered with offcuts, detritus and junk amid which he fossicks. These objects-razor blades, shoe heels, paint brushes, brooms and assorted wood, metal and rubber cast-offs-feed into a true sense of serendipity as, working intuitively, Bowen finds himself at one with the act of assembling, bring pieces such as Breadboard Man (1997), The Last Emperor (2014), The Stylish Lady (2017) or Napoleon (2018) into being. When he created Moorabbin Man (2014), he had seen a car door armrest on a footpath while walking up the street. He thought it looked almost like a finished sculpture and added a hat: it has a Neanderthal, caveman quality to it despite being essentially a piece of 21st century plastic junk. Likewise, an experience on a beach led to the creation of The Gentle Boy (2018): Bowen had been visiting a beach when he noticed a small girl crying. A boy she did not know approached her and offered comfort. This evolved into the sculpture soon afterwards, Bowen having been affected by the unexpected encounter and the boy's generous nature.
How are such human qualities conveyed by inanimate objects? When the revolution in naturalistic rendering of the human body in sculpture came to the fore during the Renaissance, it was thought that the acquisition of an understanding of the muscular and skeletal mechanisms would inform knowledge of 'the outer signs of character and emotional expression', thus fulfilling the aspiration to 'know thyself', seen at the time as the highest form of wisdom.19 While Bowen clearly sidesteps the demands of aiming for anatomical accuracy, his grasp of bodily and facial language is astute in conveying character and emotion. Looking at Vertical Portrait (1996), for example, viewers might certainly 'learn something of the person resident therein'.20 This streamlined man, compressed vertically and stepping straight out of the distorted dimensions of Giacometti-land, is a territory unto himself. He is angular, yet comfortable in his own physicality. He has no use for verbal language, his mouth shut tight: all he has to say is there in his uncompromising attitude, punctuated with a clear full-stop.
Lady with Flowers (2011) is a more enigmatic personage. Sturdy yet graceful, she carries her posy with an air of detachment. Her posture is grounded, solid and somewhat stubborn. Possibly, this woman is resistant to charm, even though it seems her flowers are an offering in the spirit of generosity, a symbol of motherhood and the giving of life. She seems to be fully self-contained, almost remote, as she makes her way forward. Only her luxuriantly crimped hair and her striped outfit give any sense of whimsy. Her gaze focussed in the distance, her expression serene, she moves through her world alone.
Bowen suspects much of the solitary nature of many of his sculptural figures may be a result of his personal working processes. For most of his career since the mid-1990s he has worked alone (apart from foundry visits). This is a story frequently related by artists, whose working life is by necessity often a solitary pursuit as an outsider. It is no surprise, then, that Bowen's figures can also be seen to have been influenced by Giacometti and his 'existentialist icons' who bear an 'evident solitude'.21 Unlike Giacometti, however, there is little evidence of expressions of angst and alienation: Bowen's people do not seem to defend themselves 'against the infinite and terrifying vacuity of space' 22-rather, they seem to bridge that gulf.
Even so, it is their consistent flatness that accentuates the solitary nature of Bowen's work. While he points to the paring-back he likes to do with his sculptures as they evolve during the making process, he does not underestimate strong influences brought to bear during his development as an artist-in particular an interest in comics, graphics and drawing. As a teenager he read many comics and his drawing practice evolved within a graphic, flat aesthetic that well suited printmaking. While Bowen says drawing has been less central as he has evolved his sculptural working methods-direct handwork in clay or wax, or on-the-spot assembling in metal, wood and found objects-the 2D effect has remained. 'It can seem rather a contradiction that a sculpture can be flat,' he says. 'Looking more at Giacometti's sculptures, I relax more about this, understanding that sculpture can be both flat and 3D at the same time. Flat is natural to me, 3D is not.'
Along with this flatness and the persistent quality of solitude in his sculptures, facial expression is a primary tool used to foster emotional engagement in Bowen's sculptures. The Young Girl (2003), for example, has a face that Bowen uses as a 'theatrical space', an area for 'action, reinvention exploration for the absurd and chance effects'.23 Character is conveyed in the simplest of gestures: 'the placement of an eye, the curve of a form, the angle of a line'.24 Eyebrows raised, arms outstretched, this Young Girl seems at once to bring an innocent vulnerability and a strong sense of self into the world. Is she expressing astonishment, open-heartedness or welcome? Is she on the cusp of being aggrieved? In any event, she has an openness that cannot be trampled upon; she demands respect and an attentive ear. Her strength flows forth with clarity and integrity; her feelings, whatever they happen to be, or however the viewer might impose them, are true to her heart.
In a similar way, the faces of the two (male and female) Hamilton Farmer (2012 and 2013) sculptures are used to exude a happy sense of purpose and industry. For them, there is nothing more important than to attend to the next task at hand; they appear practical, reliable and unfussed. They are not to be hurried, but they will do what is required when the appropriate moment arrives. Immovably connected, yet completely independent of each other, these farmers are inured to their productive calling, and they get along with things quietly. The world extends around them, and while we cannot see this landscape, we can well imagine it: the broad, gentle lands that spread out from the Grampians.
In the Land of a Thousand Echidnas (I) and (II) (2001), the world has been cast adrift on a raft of sorts: a level, impossible continent in which a parade of echidnas-usually such solitary creatures, shy of displaying emotion-congregates around a spindly, bare tree. The crust of this earth has been snipped into a thin oblong, and set on shallow feet. Far from their more natural state of roving, fossicking independence, these mammals are forced into a society in a place that seems to be one of want: dry, exposed, without sustenance or shade. Yet, it is so full of animal life.
Echidnas, owls, koalas, wombats and a variety of birds populate many of the worlds Dean Bowen brings into being, and their forms brim with personality, sometimes with more expressiveness than with the human figures he creates. There are distinct individuals- Echidna (2013), Owl (2014), Grey Whale (2018), Wombat (Large) (2019) and Koala (2020) are but a few-and many of them are entire worlds in themselves. The Long Dog (2004), for example, resembles a discrete landscape more than it represents any real-world canine. Its broad horizon is one upon which many events may take a place, a cross-section of history where the beginning seems far away from the end-yet both can be seen in much the same instant. Humans rarely inhabit this sense of perspective, being so fully occupied with grasping at the next moment. This dog, however, has a bigger picture in mind. In other instances, that is extended even further into small, contained worlds-from Ladybird Mountain (2018), with its colourful inhabitants crawling over a structure like a termite mound, to the Tree with Owl Family series (2017), these seem to be sectioned off from conventional reality, as is clear with Land of a Thousand Echidnas.
Likewise, some of Bowen's sea creatures contain entire ecologies within their own physical domains. Fish (2017), Large Fish (2017), Grey Whale (2018) and The Young Whale (2018) are similar to each other in the ways they gently sway their rear-ends, the fins resembling vegetation more than body parts. From tip to tail, these creatures' various textures speak of experience and longevity. Here, under the sea, they seem ancient and forever in motion; there is no turbulence, their eyes and mouths speak of steady vigilance. Sometimes, they seem to smile peacefully, knowingly, a wisdom of ages. They reassure with their gliding motion and their melding of biology with botany. The strangeness that can be found deep beneath the waves is made manifest. Other animals are poised, solid and still, in marked contrast to the grace of their oceanic cousins. Wombat (Large) (2019), appears to be immovable and still, yet it also seems filled with curiosity and playfulness in its eye and tender smile. This does not detract from the stubborn attitude of its posture: this is not a creature that will be easily persuaded to change course or to retreat. Onward it comes, trampling and fossicking affably as it goes.
Often, Bowen brings animals and humans together and these pairings are somewhat like winged beings, at others resembling the 'scales of justice but without its formality'.25 This is beautifully explored in works such as Boy with Birds (1997). In joining forces with animals-owls, other birds, echidnas-Bowen's human beings transcend traditional limits and express a gentle wisdom. They have grace and a rare quality of merely being, without intent, without seeking. In Young Girl with Birds (2012) or Small Pleasures (2019), this tendency to put animals on an equal plane with humans makes each creature seem more individual, where 'birds, bats, cats and dogs stare back at us inviting us into an intimate relationship, entreating us to become their friends'.26
VI. Taking flight
The solidity and grounded presence of Dean Bowen's sculptures has, during recent years, started to integrate an unexpected element in which there is an expansion upwards. This transformation does not supplant the essentially 'earthed' quality of Bowen's sculptures-rather, it augments it, with planes, fish, whales and atmospheric emissions taking the works into the realm of weightlessness, in the air and in the water.
The visual heft of Bowen's sculptural work, from its earliest expressions onwards, stems from the way it connects to the ground or, as is often the case in the internal narrative of the works, to the soil of the earth. Part of this concerted sense of gravity can be attributed to the method of the sculptures' manufacture and the nature of their materials. As they are put through the foundry process to be made into bronze, they are bound by the laws of the three-dimensional world: sculptures must stand up and, especially in the case of Bowen's public art commissions, they must do so safely and enduringly. Frequently, they have bases or pedestals integrated into the sculptures themselves. This is seen in large, firmly-planted and sensibly spaced feet, such as The Farmer (2007) or The Lady with Flowers (2011), or in low-to-the-ground bodies or landscapes, as seen in Cat (2004), Landscape with Echidna (2001) or Boat (2008).
But the grounded nature of these works is also rooted in the emotional or spiritual world that is being explored: the people, animals and hybrid-objects portrayed by Bowen tend to have a psychologically centred quality to them. Rarely is there any overwhelming evidence of distress, turmoil or angst; equally, there is nothing flighty or effervescent encountered. In this realm, there is a calmly abiding atmosphere of contentment, security and love, tethered to nature with a firm footing upon the earth.
In comparison to the creation of Bowen's sculptural works, his process of drawing, printmaking or painting is not affected by the constraints of physics that are inevitably encountered when making an object with height, width and depth. In two dimensions, anything is possible: there is no necessity to factor in armatures, distribution of weight or the maintenance of balance to prevent toppling. Imaginative prowess, flight, and flights of fancy have a smooth, direct and unfettered route to paper, canvas or any other flat surface.
For these reasons, it is not surprising to note the deep connections between Bowen's prints and paintings on one side and his sculptures on the other. The lineage of Bowen's Plane series can be traced back through his sculptural work, and beyond that to his earlier etchings and paintings. In all of these, an interest in uplift and flight has long been evident-even in the Crashing Plane etchings of 1991, which seem to soar as much as they plummet. The enduring presence of birds in Bowen's work is also significant in this persistent exploration of flight, even when these animals are captured during a moment of stillness.
The Plane works, however, have a very specific relationship with Bowen's earlier sculptures, ranging from Boy with Birds (1997), Aeroplane Boy (2000), The Flyers (II) (2005), Bird Lover (2012) and the 2017 works Fish and Large Fish, to the 2018 pieces Whale, Grey Whale, Southern Whale and Barracuda. In most of these later works, found materials-usually timber-are used to construct forms for the direct burn-out process in the foundry. These materials help to emphasise natural forms and the implicit personality of the creature being depicted. The Plane sculptures, too, have an essential sense of the natural and organic about them, perhaps resembling insects or fish as much as aeronautical machines. They share their fins and tails with the sea creatures that predate them in Bowen's oeuvre, while they glide like their fellow travellers, the avians. And they gently connect to the ground with their slender, twig like armatures that become parts of their bodies rather than merely pragmatic supports.
Each Plane is anything but cold or mechanical. Their spirits seem to rise up, connecting with the way various cultures, from the dawn of time, have expressed the dream of flight. Depicting aerial powers, throughout art history, has been a constant, with flight seen as an almost god-like ability, expressed as an element of religion, mythology or war: the Egyptians worshipped Horus, the sky-god falcon; Christian art is clearly besotted with the figure of the angel, and the people of Asia Minor have venerated many flying deities, such as the winged goddess Ishtar.27 In this sense, Bowen's works are part of an ancient infatuation.
VII. Language of the heart
The domestic realm, in its most elevated form, may contain those things held most dearly by human beings: loving kindness in connection with others, a sense of place and purpose in the world, and security and comfort. In Bowen's sculptures featuring buildings, such grand hopes are often made manifest. He describes the house as a symbol of humankind. Inside there is safety, outside is the rest of the world, and the infinite night sky. There are houses such as Home with a Large Cloud (2020), Home with Drifting Smoke (2020), Ladder to the Stars (2020) and The Strange Cloud (Dreams of a Fisherman) (2020)-and the beautiful nod to Giacometti in Home with Vertical Smoke (Homage to Alberto) 2020. It is easy to imagine being inside these domiciles, the home-fires burning, with love leaking out to giddy heights. There, comfort and hope may be found, and it may also be generated. Dreams visit and cross over into the world in which we live, here and now.
Other works featuring architecture are darker, examining anxieties around urban life, representing broader issues concerning humanity's impact on the planet. In these works the rapid rate of urban development, reduction of green spaces and the damaging sociological effects come to the fore-a far cry from Bowen's renderings of animals and their bushland settings.28 There is a great discomfort here with modern technology and the incessant consumption capitalism engenders.29 Rising into the upper realms of the atmosphere, defying gravity and appearing to teeter on its foundations, Ivory Tower (2021) is a slender piece of architecture that puts its grim dominance to work. Spouting fumes belligerently, it is divorced from the world of nature. There are no hearts or dreams here as it pushes upwards, ignoring the toppling that seems inevitable, brought on by its own dogged devotion to progress and the cool heights of intellectual disengagement. There is grief here, and foolishness in its titanic momentum, even as a feather might send it crashing down.
Jar of Stars> (2020), by contrast, is a universe in microcosm, its stellar points of brilliance captured like illuminated insects: their bright glory does not dim. This jar might be a bubble underneath the water. It might be a planet, or a galaxy, or a child's balloon. It invites contemplation, a looking within that is simultaneously a soulful gaze into the night sky beyond. Here, light is everything, where the knowledge that all things are starlight, billions of years-old carbon, forms a deep connection for the human below. These spermatozoic shooting stars reference the beginnings and the brevity of life. This is magical, directing attention to ephemeral joys, where 'Bowen alerts us to the marvels of life all around, thereby soliciting our protection of the earth upon which we live'.30
Again, like many of Bowen's works, Jar of Stars connects with a deeply human sense of hope, compassion and good-natured wellbeing. As Bowen says, this work is full of optimism and is the reverse of a Pandora's Box: evil does not dwell inside this vessel but it instead offers an opportunity to liberate goodness and joy. Like the genie bottle depicted in fairy-tale literature, a sort of magic ensues when the lid is lifted. Wishes are granted, perhaps, and good things come to pass. Beautiful memories are brought back to life. Happiness, being here in the present moment, is encountered with deep acceptance. The container might also be read as a stand-in for the human body, the personage, full of the joy of life that, under certain conditions and circumstances, cannot be ignored. It must be expressed.
In a similar way, The House of Love (Nitty Gritty) (2021) and its forebears in other House of Love works (2016 and 2019) are filled with a poignant expression of deeply felt affection and warmth. These works bring a dream of happiness into the world, into the daylight, into the present moment. The House of Love cannot contain itself: out it flows, glowing with a sweet charm, to perfume the atmosphere. It beckons, in a sense, to all the sculptural works Bowen creates-from the realm of humankind, to that of other creatures on land, air and in the vast oceanic depths.
These interconnections, where people meet animals, where sentience infuses objects, and where homes brim with emotion, are gently forged. There is now and forever in these respectfully human works of art, with the deft hand of Dean Bowen at the helm.
1 Kemp, Martin and Wallace, Marina, Spectacular Bodies: The Art and Science of the Human Body from Leonardo to Now, 2000 (Berkeley: University of California Press) 18-19.
2 Bowen's printmaking and painting work up to 2009 has been primarily documented in Palmer, Sheridan, Argy Bargy, 2009 (Melbourne: McMillan Art Publishing).
3 Prizes and Commissions (deanbowen.com) accessed 4 February 2021.
4 Grahame, Noreen, 'That Big Journey', Imprint, vol.28, n.4, 1993 (Melbourne: Print Council of Australia) 20.
5 Trimble, Judith, Bronze Sculpture 1995-99, May 1999 (Melbourne: Australian Galleries).
6 Bowen, Dean, artist statement, 1993, (Melbourne: Helen Lempriere Sculpture Award) 9.
7 See Krauss, Rosalind, 'Sculpture in the expanded field', OCTOBER, vol.8 Spring 1979 (Cambridge: MIT Press) 30-44.
8 Lichtenstein, Jacqueline (trans. Miller, Chris), The blind spot: an essay on the relations between painting and sculpture in the modern age, 2008 (Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute), 3.
9 Day, Charlotte, Sculptural matter, 2012 (Melbourne: Australian Centre for Contemporary Art), 5.
10 Lindsay, Robert, McClelland Sculpture Survey, 2014 (Melbourne: McClelland Sculpture Park) 25.
11 Trimble, ibid.
12 Trimble, ibid.
13 Flynn, Tom, The body in three dimensions, 1998 (New York City: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.) 7.
14 Robb, Leigh, Versus Rodin: bodies across space and time, 2017 (Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia) 32.
15 Edwards, Geoffrey, Urban Bird, April 2003 (Burwood: Icon Museum of Art, Deakin University) 3.
16 Zimmer, Jenny, Personnages et Animaux, May 1998 (Melbourne: Australian Galleries) 5.
17 Edwards, ibid 2.
18 Dictionaries list this word as meaning, simply, a person or, especially, one distinguished for presence and personal power.
19 Kemp and Wallace, ibid 13.
20 Kemp and Wallace, ibid 16.
21 Read, Peter, and Kelly, Julia, Giacometti: Critical Essays, 2009 (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing) 6.
22 Read and Kelly, ibid 7.
23 Zimmer, ibid 5.
24 Garden, Wendy, A Jar of Stars, 2012 (Melbourne: Maroondah Art Gallery) 3.
25 Trimble, ibid.
26 Garden, ibid 6.
27 Hallion, Richard P., Taking Flight: Inventing the aerial age from antiquity through the first world war, 2003, (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 3.
28 Palmer, Sheridan, Of Roads Homes and Cities, (Brisbane: Jan Murphy Gallery)
29 Edwards, ibid 2. 30 Garden, ibid 6.