John Bowman


In his recent paintings, John Bowman takes up the lowly genre of still life to meditate on the present era’s flaunting of affluence and abundance. Before modernism, still life was at the bottom of the hierarchy of genres, and in America, still life painting traditionally presented a humble, sober picture of life. Where the sideboards overflowed with fruits and vegetables, flowers, and trophies of the hunt, it was a celebration of the harvest, of the fruitfulness of nature, and of the work that helped produce such bounty. However, in paintings such as Plenty, a festival of light and a panoply of cakes and pies and peonies, Bowman has brought to still life the grandiose sense of the transnational sublime of consumer culture. He offers us images of the exhibitionism of goods and goodies—the good itself—on display. In radiant, refractory paintings that transcend the tender ironies of pop art with satiric delight and painterly élan, John Bowman offers images of the society of the spectacle.

The painting Royale with Cheese is the centerpiece in a gallery of coruscating works. It could well be the apotheosis of the eponymous hamburger—via Amsterdam, via Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Set against an urban landscape at night—a vast, dark plain speckled with lights of a low-lying city—is a brightly illuminated array of fruits, vegetables, pickles on a veritable hillside of French fries, garnished on left and right by dishes of cold cuts. At the center of this set piece is poised the saucy double-decker beef patty sandwich—a specialty of the house of the golden arches—and it is surmounted, indeed, crowned by a big trumpeting bouquet of flowers. The colors are delirious, carcinogenic, like potent industrial food dyes, so fraught with the idea of the color they represent that they are more the color than the color itself (certainly as it appears in nature). The comestibles themselves are off-putting, like plastic props in a restaurant window, seductive to the eye, but with no taste, and, were one to be so feckless as to bite into the contemptible fruit, it would have a mealy texture and leave one grimacing.

Composed in bilateral symmetry, the invisible seam at the center of the painting runs from top to bottom, dividing it into two more or less matching or mirrored halves. The fruits and flowers, in full or sliced, alone or in counterpart, are evocative of organs and orifices, vague allusions to the memory of a lusty appetite, perhaps that of an ancient roué, some old Adam gone soft, like Velázquez’s tired old soldier. In full symmetrical array, these elements form a grotesque head with a loopy, leering face—a sort of distended Arcimboldo portrait—in the dry, gelid air of an artificial climate. This carney-like grotesque may be the demonic personification of the ubiquitous sandwich, the Big MacGuffin which has laid siege to bistros and brasseries, trattorias, estaminets, and mesóns, cutting a broad swath in its imperialist advance, worse than the sword or assorted scriptures, crushing men’s hearts and souls through their dyspeptic stomachs. The same forces that perfected the system of fast food also offer a dizzying assortment of products at all price points to satisfy the will to purchase of any and all consumers. Bowman paints a world without seasons—that is now.

In Cheeses of all Nations, the attention shifts from the empire of industrial fast food to the artisanal products of local gastronomic cultures. Of course, import requirements may mean homogenization and other adjustments, compromising the original quality and flavor in favor of health and safety benefits. But global commerce seamlessly blends the industrial and the artisanal, the authentic and the ersatz. There is no distinction of value to be made except as to the return on investment. The principal elements of the composition, portions of cheese in various slabs and slices and assorted polyhedrons—reminiscent of the mysterious object in Dürer’s Melancolia I—are in a great heap against a dark background over which radiates a floral spray. The mirrored symmetry is compromised here. The motif wavers, the pattern falters, but balance is not lost. Not all of the elements correspond, and the axis tapers off toward the top of the fancy cheese assortment, where two bottles of champagne stand to the side abutting a brass urn. An abundance of choice is cause for dismay. The gourmet shops bulging with goods are a standard feature of international air terminals, resort enclaves, and cosmopolitan centers, all leached of character and local charm and overwhelmed by the chain stores of international brand marketing. Cheese is cheesy, and the hard, leaden, unappetizing look of these items, which should be ripe with flavor, suggests they may instead be tasteless, cheap, and meretricious—though expensive. An identity defined by appearances constructed of purchases is one measured by conformity to the prevailing code. The consumer is as much on display as the goods and services for sale. Character fails before the nervous compulsion. The fissures and rents in the symmetry, in the display window of our vanities, like an errant mirror, bespeak the enduring folly and tastelessness of the narcissist.

Still life painting in the seventeenth century, the golden age of the genre, perfected the dual purpose of proclaiming wealth, taste, and knowledge while preserving moral judgment. The vanities paid due homage to age-old verities. Browning fruit, cut flowers, winking candles, sputtering lamps, transparent globes, overturned cups, the silent stringed instrument, the grinning skull. In Bowman’s allegories of abundance there also lurk auguries of alienation and anxiety. These are to be found in the uneasy latitudes. Somewhere along the invisible axis, one must take heed, nodding to left and right. There is no mechanical rendering, the idiomatic insists upon itself, and the free, nervous gesture of the artist sallies forth. And then Bowman seems suddenly to adjust his sights, shifting from the decadence of the grande bouffe to a cascade of light in a series of paintings of chandeliers. The theme of symmetry nonetheless pertains as the chandelier, typically, is itself a virtuoso display of symmetrical form, at once bilateral and radial.

In the painting called Lantern, the sole image of a chandelier that adumbrates a context other than darkness, one seems to be looking upon the central or crowning ornament in a dark interior space as of a temple. The gold bull at the apex of the glowing convolution may leave one to ponder the orgy at the start of the exodus and the forty years of austerity to follow. But the paintings Pearl, Brilliance, Crystal, and Superior Lighting are light fixtures more in a similar vein, with their wan spectrum of Pez-like color. While Bowman’s pile of cheeses may in its way evoke the facets of a Provençal hillside town or an analytic man with a guitar, his interest in symmetry and structure finds an even more abstract form in the rendering of the enantiomorphic aspect of crystal chandeliers, while further elaborating upon the theme of abundance. The crystal chandelier is a marker for a certain kind of elegance. As such, it may evoke a decadent, amoral, eighteenth-century aristocratic world of flagrant wealth and exquisite sensibility and its counterpart in ruthless reason and revolutionary fervor—possessed of its own brutal moral symmetry; or it may just as easily be the garish symbol of parvenu taste, new wealth with a purchased title. But looking past the strung beads and crystals, the incandescent bulbs and girandoles, the color is acrid, chalky and the brushwork is intense, focused, interstitial. In the complex interplay of light and dark, color and no color, opacity and transparency, figure and field, interior and exterior, the elaborate ornamental structure dissolves into abstraction in a calligraphic cataract of paint at the center of Brilliance. It is a nerve-wracking and breathtaking place to find oneself, like a cauldron where the spell draws its power.

The painting Dominion is a brooding monochromatic image of a chandelier without light, but illuminated from above, beyond the upper margin of the canvas. The object is cropped and seen from below at an oblique angle. It conjures up, perhaps because of its Ganesha-like elephant figure emerging from a cluster of shapes, an ancient south Asian temple. As the body itself is a paradigm of symmetry, and the temple and the body are metaphors for each other, looking at the staggered figure of the chandelier, its symmetry “crippled,” as Morton Feldman might say, one searches the image for the hidden figure, the face that haunts us. And like a doppelgänger, the secret self, the Rorschach-like stain of our conscience—which knows our unspoken truth—it appears. Art has its own glow. The light is neither natural nor artificial, or it is somehow both. The lattice of image and theme, abstraction and representation, meaning and value, profusion and disquiet in these works of John Bowman reminds us that art is no mere luxury good or investment product but something essential for understanding who we are.

—Christopher Sweet


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