Of Birds, Bees and Nest Eggs
by Jenny Zimmer
September 2001 - AXIA Modern Art, Melbourne - Catalogue
Horned Screamer, Red-necked Grebe, Blue-faced Booby, White -headed Flightless Steamer Duck, Black Greybird (a contradiction, surely?) - I found these strange names among the many thousands listed in a 450-page directory of Birds of the world.
Try to imagine the African Go-away Bird, I asked myself: does it habitually migrate, does its song mimic the words - or do they simply wish the Bird would go away?
Common threads linking these quaintly descriptive names are the distinctive colours, habits and behaviours of Birds. It's these that ornithologists notice when making their identifications.
Viewers of this exhibition might take a similar and equally amusing approach to Dean Bowen's Birds. In this joyful celebration of monumental Bird-i-ness are found species like the Great Green Toucan, the Big Black-bird, the Red-bird of the Night, the Early Bird, the Red-spotted Bird and the strangely named Dodo de Raisin whose plumage is dotted with black spots. Bowen describes the latter as 'a nod to Dubuffet', his long-term guide and mentor and an artist who often demonstrated a similarly quirky sense of humour.
Most people enjoy 'bird watching'. Each time, one is freshly astounded by the beauty of their shapes, colours and sounds, and their clever behaviour. Bowen's fertile imagination takes the process further. For a start, he alters their scale. A huge, rotund, brightly-coloured and textured body often occupies almost the entire canvas. How often have I watched a wren or a finch and wondered how something so very small could make its way in the world? Bowen's Birds conquer any problems posed by scale. The Giant Green Toucan completely overshadows the house on which he's perched, while Yellow Budgie's profile portrait (head and shoulders) consists of a single transversing arc filled with pure, bright yellow. From here it is but a hop, step and jump to Mountain Bird where the Bird's body becomes an expanse of landscape, or Lunar Mountain Bird where the body-landscape is dotted with trees. Normally it's Birds in trees, here it's trees in Bird!
If scale and location are reversed, so too are the Birds' identities and behaviour patterns. We find the Early Bird catching his worm and The Nest Egg carefully guarded. Sometimes it is as if Bowen's Birds are people, watching us. Some paintings include, in their foregrounds, the backs of spectators' heads. These watchers gaze into distant landscapes which prove to be giant Birds looking back at them with their unblinking sideways eyes. Occasionally the spectators head appears to have been captured and swallowed, transforming itself into a giant egg that befits a giant Bird.
A series of charmingly naive paintings introduce associations between Birds and bees, and Birds and grasshoppers - innocently portrayed, but rich material for Freudian interpretation, no doubt. Then come the Big Bees and the Big Birds Watching Big Insects - thus microcosm becomes macrocosm in this surreal context of interchangeable relationships. Apart from their unusually pure and luscious colours, gorgeous textures and gentle humour, these paintings overturn normal expectations of what Bird-watching is all about and re-focus our observations on the human condition. They also capitalise on the pleasurable effects of strong forms, pure colours and rich textures on the individual psyche.
A note on the bronzes: I have always thought of echidnas as solitary, ground-hugging creatures. As usual, Bowen sees them differently. His echidnas come in droves, they clamber up slender, leaf-denuded stalks and waver precariously above the solid, earthy terrain below. The bravest, or perhaps most perverse of them, hangs for dear life on the furthest extremity of a happy dog's waving tail!!A note on the woodblock prints: Bowen has returned recently from Japan where he attended a workshop programme with instruction from masters of this traditional method of printmaking which is rarely practiced in Australia. The prints Nagasawa Bird and Awaji Bird were produced in very limited editions on Awaji Island, Hyogo, Japan.
© Jenny Zimmer, September 2001