by Geoffrey Edwards
April 2003 - Icon Museum of Art, Deakin University, Burwood - Catalogue
Whether as printmaker, painter, sculptor, or mastermind of some of the most highly subjective artists books conceived by an Australian practitioner, Dean Bowen has conjured up a memorable world of characters, landscapes, and various emblematic images. These are images that put this writer, at least, in mind of a local or regional equivalent - albeit a visual and contemporary counterpart - of the famous play Our Town by Thornton Wilder.
That is to say, Bowen's private realm of fantastic creatures, whimsical figures, urban Birds and winding country roads has an authority that is so keenly infused with local colour and regional idiosyncrasy that this connection is brought to mind. As it happens, both Wilder's chronicle and Bowen's own visual imagery are similar in terms of mood as well as thematic structure.
Such is the disarming simplicity, and directness or poignancy of Dean Bowen's familiar cast of 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 - his answer, as it were, to Wilder's 'Graver's Corners'. Of course, this is not New England and the voices we hear from the side of Bowen's imaginary stage are not those of Wilder's Professor Willard and Editor Webb. All the voices are Bowen's just as the townships occupied by his characters and the countryside they traverse are distinctively Australian as well. In fact, I prefer to think of them as quintessential^ Victorian although not specifically the country Victoria of Bowen's own childhood, but surely something very similar to it, and something stylised in the manner of Wilder's own literary model. While Bowen's families, bundled into their old-fashioned sedans, tool gladly along the highways that curl through a rolling and uneventful countryside - a scratchy, dry-looking landscape of reddish-ochre and bronze-greens - they gaze out their car windows at the same paddocks, the same dilapidated farmhouses, and the vast skies that are extremely familiar to those of us, in youth, who spent holidays and weekends motoring throughout the state in the back seat of a family car.
Bowen's images are archetypal in cast. His landscapes are archetypal in the sense I described just now. His animals and Birds are archetypal by virtue of their primitivised simplicity and profile representation. Likewise his shocking red aircraft (an etching, aquatint and drypoint titled Crashing plane) with its great wings flung to the extremities of the sheet as it crashes headlong towards the earth is an archetypal image of modern technology - and, for that matter, of technological calamity. Chief among his repertoire of subjects-as-archetypes, however, are Bowen's figures that present themselves foursquare and frontal on the sheet of paper or expanse of canvas as archetypes of an almost primeval kind. These figures, or at least some of them, seem to be representations of the artist himself. We can be fairly confident of this if only because of the profound sympathy that the artist brings to his delineation of their features and their relationship to the environment and situation in which they find themselves.
Figures like The little man or The third man (both sculptures in bronze, images derived from emblematic figures in Bowen's prints) might well be reincarnations of the fifteenth-century character Everyman, the central personage in the great morality play in which all characters are dramatic personifications of human foibles. During his allegorical journey through life, Everyman seeks sympathetic companions and is summoned, at one point, by the character of Death who invites him on an ominous 'journey beyond this world'. Mercifully, the character Good Deeds is on hand to offer support and guidance.
While the sweeping rural vistas and busy suburban streets, and all those creatures great and small of Bowen's imaginary and wholly engaging world are not exactly faced with the threat of 'clear and present danger' of the kind that imperiled Everyman's wanderings, this is not to say that Bowen's world is without its own sense of darkness and foreboding, or that it is without a sense of the reality of the presence of forces other than those on the side of good. We can never be certain of what lurks in the raking shadows of Bowen's star-lit nights, or quite what duplicitous hands steer the wheels of his stretched sedans, but on the whole we feel that Bowen's song is a song of joy, and perhaps of the joy of everyday life and the simple beauty of the world of everyday appearances and human relationships.
Bowen's work has been widely documented. So too has his distinguished career and his mastery of various printmaking techniques, his obvious interest in the work of Jean Dubuffet -and the influence that Dubuffet has had on his art - and his successful record of exhibiting overseas, in particular in Japan and France. Bowen has enjoyed an ongoing and fruitful association with Deakin University and the current exhibition is the latest outcome of this liaison.
So, while Bowen's art evokes a connection with Thornton Wilder's Our Town - at least inasmuch as it is based on a similar thematic structure that affords glimpses into the lives and circumstances of the characters conjured up by the artist and the writer respectively - Bowen's world is quite plainly the artist's own creation. His method of working in broad themes linked to urban imagery, country and outback subjects, Birds, faces, and animals, has generated a range of memorable images that are reflections on our lives and the lives of our friends. These works contemplate these lives. As much as we might recognise the influence of Dubuffet in some works or, say, of Leonard Baskin in others, or even of Botero in a few, these are images -personages - that are presented to us as personifications - not unlike the characters in Everyman - of human attributes and foibles.
For all the inscrutable attitudes of Bowen's characters, and for all their ritual activities, for all the mutability of those giant heads that become landscapes, these are the customary events, the familiar stories, the fragile aspirations of our town, and of our time.
To drive down one of Bowen's windy roads in a red car, or to gaze at a shooting star in one of Bowen's night skies, or to stand and listen to the barking of one of his brick-laid dogs or the chirping of a perched Bird, is an experience that Thornton Wilder would have recognised instantly. And so do we.
© Geoffrey Edwards, April 2003