David Bowes by Anney Bonney

“I’m not really trying to make a hermetic painting. I’d like to make a painting that engages the attention and imagination of the viewer, not one that will refuse to give up its meaning. Maybe one that will release its meaning in time.”

BOMB 49 Fall 1994
049 Fall 1994
Bowes 01 Body

David Bowes, Memory Dance, acrylic oil on canvas, 66 × 80 inches. Courtesy Sperone Westwater.

David Bowes paints a psychedelic universe floating in ecstasy and enigma. Like a masquerading tornado, he drops us into a schizo Nirvana. The landscape fills with ancestral figures, demi-gods and their votaries. David doesn’t paint statues of sleeping women, but statues sleeping. And in this sensual magic of the sacred graces, he offers you the Psychomythology of Everyday Life—sex, enlightenment, and the pleasures of the silent symposium.

Anney Bonney Your new studio feels like a mausoleum. If it doesn’t have any ghosts, it at least comes with a history.

David Bowes Yes. I knew that Rainer Fetting worked here an the mid-1980s, but I probably brought more of Rainer with me than he actually left behind. And Sandro Chia worked here for a while, too. I was looking to see if they would show up in my pictures like a seance. But it’s really just an empty room like any other.

AB Which sense is it that senses someone’s “presence?”

DB There was something … I had a feeling of claustrophobia. I had to make room for myself in here.

AB It’s the reverse of your studio experience in Rome where you had so much evidence of its previous occupant.

DB Yes, that was curious. I was borrowing that studio in Rome from a woman. And I was poking around in her drawers finding things from which to make still life paintings. It was like pretending to be somebody else because those things were charged with sentiment and yet they weren’t my sentiments. As I was painting her possessions, I was discovering the person they belonged to, like a portrait of somebody through significant objects. And their significance seemed to have been contained inside them, like batteries. Those paintings were little theaters of other people’s knickknacks.

AB They feel like ritual objects from women’s mysteries.

DB They’re still quite mysterious to me.

AB I like the relationship of the paintings as object presenting painted objects. That feedback. Why are paintings of objects called still lifes and of organic matter, nature morte?

DB Objects are really slow, you know. They’re objects obeying certain laws and being acted on by light. It’s a way of looking at nature in one of its most still aspects. I was preoccupied with reaching the speed of life, actually being able to paint fast enough to “get it down.” So I started with things that didn’t move at all. Now I’m painting people. And the more I understand about the Masters—Goya and Velasquez were tremendously fast. People make a terrible mistake about the techniques of the antique painters. Historians became preoccupied with the materials and the fetishistic preparation of the surface, the meticulous application, slow, painstaking … in fact that just doesn’t bring you anywhere except to oblivion. (laughter)

AB Goya trained in fresco and tapestry cartoons. Is the use of acrylic paint part of your own speed strategy? I mean, it’s nice to dip into water all day, but it doesn’t give you much leeway.

DB I started painting in oil, so learning to paint with acrylic is like trying to catch fish with an umbrella. To paint alla prima on a huge surface is just maddening. There’s just no way to keep it fresh. I use all these dodges and devices but I really have to be quick.

AB Assuming you can’t always poke through people’s drawers, how do you begin your paintings?

DB One way is a very immediate observation of my immediate surroundings, seizing on something that I found my eye attracted to, a particular corner at a particular time, and then representing that moment and that place as faithfully as I can.

AB But then do the characters follow? You set the stage and then the characters evolve?

DB Well, what I was describing is an existential approach to painting and the representation of everyday life. We were talking about those paintings from Rome, and I’m happy to look back and find so much of a day in the painting, it works like a diary. But that’s only one type of picture. They’re really limitless, all those traditional genres: portrait, still life, and landscape. there are dozens of ways of approaching them and then the intersection between those disciplines …

AB Allegory might be your combo genre.

DB It’s hard for me to make categorical statements about my work. There’s some path that I always return to but along the way there are paintings of really different natures. I suppose I’ve painted allegorical paintings …

AB Like, Miss Blue City, to me it’s a golden riddle in a metaphysical complex. Reading a sign is listening to a dream.

DB I arrive at a selection of objects using my intuition as my compass. Along the way I’m conscious of displaying a number of provocative details and combinations of languages. I’m interested in the play between theatrical presentation and uncovering things that are provocative to me, personally. I’m not really trying to make a hermetic painting. I’d like to make a painting that engages the attention and imagination of the viewer, not one that will refuse to give up its meaning. Maybe one that will release its meaning in time. Of course, that’s another challenge, to make a painting that takes place in time rather than being a fixed moment or a snapshot.

AB You seem to want both a painting that ripens and stays ripe. This painting suggests the feminine mystery of the sacred prostitute.

DB It’s inevitable when you think about creativity to think about women and see the mythic aspects.

AB Do you have to isolate yourself to do that?

DB When I’m working in my studio and I have a lot of time alone, I’m working in a pretty unconscious manner. All these territories just seem to be open and accessible. But when one has to go out and present work to the public, it can be inhibiting. It’s more difficult to get your hands on those mysterious things if you’re thinking twice about it.

Bowes 02 Body

David Bowes, Artificial Paradise, acrylic on canvas, 42 × 39 inches. Courtesy Sperone Westwater.

AB There’s a certain proscription against revealing mysteries anyway. It’s dangerous.

DB I don’t know if it’s dangerous, it’s just a little bit embarrassing. (laughter)

AB No, I think it is … because you’re taking Beauty into the world. Venus envy. Human nature through Mother Nature.

DB So many painters will tell you that nature is the great teacher. Through that process of contemplation and quietude and slowness we discover that meditative place where all the pieces can be fitted together. Everything that’s alive seems to hold secrets of existence. And a glimpse every once in a while goes a long way.

AB Part of what I see as historical references in your work seem to be about rebirthing the culture.

DB Yes.

AB But I’m aware you’ve gotten a range of other reactions.

DB Living in Italy, I’d taken for granted the vocabulary of received languages from all different schools of making things, from all different times and all different cultures. Antiquity is much more troubling to an American audience, they have to locate the precise origins of those motifs. I found, in working and showing in Italy, that people were relatively comfortable with history. I mean, they live where many, many things have happened in the same place over a great deal of time and their nearness to those other times is so matter-of-fact. I was really always very comfortable in Italy.

AB You located yourself at the point of origin.

DB Italy was important to my imagination when I was a kid. My preoccupation with and representation of Italy in my pictures led me to go and live there so that Italian daily life could enter into my pictures through the act of painting there. One of the great things about living in New York City now is that it’s the great transcultural encyclopedia. And, there again, that’s something that wouldn’t seem to require as much explanation as people demand.

AB Ancient people didn’t recognize Dionysus when he strolled through a crowd, either. So today you might go into a subway and, if you looked inside the passengers’ imaginations, you’d see outlines of your figures as memories of their cultures.

DB But in fact on the train that’s exactly where you might come across these collections of people: a Spanish man and a Haitian woman, a Chinese couple and their baby, and a couple of men from Nigeria and a European, and they’re lined up just the way they are in my pictures.

AB And that Dionysian tension—what’s human, what’s divine—sends out subliminal shock waves.

DB Getting back to the historicism, paintings have the capacity to travel in time. We can look at scenes that were painted 2,000 years ago and feel that they’re right here with us. As a young painter, I spent a lot of my time in museums communicating with these people who are dead, but their voices were so clear that it never really occurred to me that they were. These all seemed to be simultaneous realities. So aspects of historical fact or fancy enter into my work because of the second nature I’ve developed from a comfort with the closeness of all of these people.

AB You play in the shadow between the historical and imaginary. I recognize characters from the Commedia dell’Arte, but then I fantasize scenes from Pompeii. I think I’m looking at wedding pictures of Ariadne and Dionysian rites of initiation.

DB I’m happy if my pictures provoke people to their own musings and imaginings and set in motion a kind of daydream, a reflection. If I refer to the past I’m trying to refer to little epiphanies I’ve had about the daily life of other times, informal evocations that throw into relief things that happen every day now. Imagination travels in time and I’m interested in traveling around the world without leaving my studio, inhabiting the future as much as rediscovering from the past. In a way painting itself, any painting is a kind of antique activity. It is a very, very antique activity. But the universe is timeless. We’re just impaired by our senses, our experience. The moment of existence is like the gate on a projector and our lives are fed through like film, but now is the moment that’s illuminated, it’s always now. Somewhere around there is my interest in unlocking that door out of our perception into real time, (laughter) into really now.

AB Freud and da Vinci aside, part of your romance is in decay and ruin. The flipside of dystopia.

DB When I came to New York as a little kid, I really liked how broken and dirty it was. It seemed magnificent, but now, I think about why that still appeals to me. And I guess it’s the honesty of that. I enjoy looking at beautiful architecture and I like new buildings, but there’s a certain vanity in the opulence and pristine tautology of modern buildings, and people are really in love with that illusion. I’m more comfortable with the fact that nothing really stays that way for very long.

Bowes 03 Body

David Bowes by Kate Simon © 1994.

AB In your paintings there’s a displacement or reallocation of Renaissance characteristics—classical, humanist, illusions, allusions—in contemporary space.

DB That’s what explodes unconsciousness, the realization of what might be in the next moment and the memory of what’s been. Holding that in our minds in the moment we sense we’re actually existing. Transcendence. And painting records that in an infinitely subtle language as complex as DNA and as personal as a finger print. It’s not an autograph but the spark and sparkle of life into the bargain.

AB Jung said via Aristotle, “The soul never thinks without an image.” And it comes from our hands, which used to be our wings.

DB I think that the handmade aspect is good. It’s good to remember where we came from and the possibility of transformation. It’s common practice in classical music to recreate a piece from another time in the present time. There are points of departure.

AB It has to do with virtuosity and honoring the ancestors. Reverie and reverence and the mythological realm. Where am I going when I enter your painting, Blue World?

DB Oh, that’s the artificial paradise.

AB So many of your painted figures are masked. Dionysus was the god of disguises, you know.

DB I’ve performed with masks. I impersonated Pulcinella from the Commedia dell’ Arte for one of my openings. What I discovered is that once you put the mask on, you become the character. It’s very mysterious. Certain cultures are still involved with the mask. We dress in masks on Halloween and there’s Carnival. I had already built up a certain amount of momentum dealing with those costumed players that I made in the Fall of ’92 and so I went a little further with it. You know, one thing leads to another and no matter which way you go or where you put your foot down a dozen other events and circumstances will fall into place around that. Which is a tantalizing kind of synchronicity. I’ve always enjoyed theater, the nature of acting and performance and spectacle, and those spectacles as a handy topical subject for painting … That view from the audience of an arranged spectacle offers you opportunities of composition that might otherwise seem kind of stilted, but in this light it gives them a vivacity. And then that led me to reflect on the nature of presenting works in public, which is another kind of spectacle. It presented new possibilities for commenting on a wider range of experiences in the paintings in terms of an uncontrived opportunity to make a narrative, and that’s just the beginning.

AB In a way you’ve subverted Watteau’s fête pictures. His social context is your psychological one. A mask reveals and conceals. To Jungians it means persona, personality, and it comes from a medieval Latin word for ghost. There seems to be a natural attraction between mask and spectacle. The word spectacle has interesting cognates, too. A speculum is a lookout tower, like your recurring panoptikons, and a speculate is a mirrored instrument that makes visible what was hidden. Speculation requires a remembering, a recollecting of all facets, faces. The irony is that people who live only in spirit cast no shadow, and people who have no reflection are vampires. So check those mirrors … But this is only the academic view.

Maybe if I try on one of your masks, I’ll see your paintings as they see themselves.

DB The academic presentation is only a way of cataloging things. It’s fine if you’re already familiar with the magic. But to turn someone on to it, you have to stumble on to it, and so do they. I think then you get much closer to the truth about things.

Robert Greene by Klaus Kertess
Greene 01 Body
Kerry James Marshall by Calvin Reid
Marshall Kerry James 01 Bomb 062

For Kerry James Marshall, 1997 was a good year: a MacArthur Fellowship, the Whitney Biennial and Documenta X. He spoke with Calvin Reid about the future of painting. 

Studio Visit: Nina Chanel Abney by Osman Can Yerebakan
Nina Abney22

“Everything is equally treated.” 

Rita Ackermann by Josh Smith
Stretcher Bar Painting 10, 2016, oil and acrylic on canvas, 77 x 44 inches. Images courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

We listen in as two painters talk painting, studio practice, and the way their works live out in the world.

Originally published in

BOMB 49, Fall 1994

Featuring interviews with Kiki Smith, Arthur Miller, Steve Malkmus, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tom Noonan, Fiona Rae, John Edgar Wideman, Frank Pugliese, Diamanda Galas & John Paul Jones, and David Bowes.

Read the issue
049 Fall 1994