Dean Bowen: Journey. Beaver Galleries, 81 Denison Street, Deakin. Until February 28, 2021.
Dean Bowen has been one of Australia's most commercially successful artist printmakers.
Quite a number of years ago, he developed a certain morphology in his artistic language with brightly coloured simplified birds, echidnas and all variety of bush and farm animals gleaned from his childhood experiences in rural Victoria. They were presented joyfully in various guises with a naive simplicity frequently shown on an exaggerated scale with a joie de vivre permeating the prints and subsequently in the smaller and larger bronzes. Within a bleak world, they appeared as a bright and sunny antidote to much of the angst-ridden art of our day.
If there is a criticism of Bowen's work, it is that it has become a little too repetitive and predictable with few surprises, unexpected visual ambushes or conceptual discoveries. Having established a successful formula, Bowen with honesty, integrity and a high skill level has produced a sizeable oeuvre. He has held more than 100 solo exhibitions and has been in twice that number of group exhibitions over the past three decades.
This exhibition comes as a bit of a surprise in that it contains quite a lot of early work that has not been previously exhibited, especially the monotypes and the monoprints from the 1990s. Perhaps it is worth drawing the distinction between the two - a monotype is generally painting on a matrix that is then covered up with a sheet of paper and passed through a press to attain a unique impression. Monoprints, on the other hand, generally are printed from a matrix that has been marked - for example by an etched line or some sort of design - and then are inked in such a manner that a unique impression is created. Subsequently, the same matrix can be inked once again in a different manner and further unique prints can be created.
This exhibition is punctuated by a number of fresh, effortless works such as the monotype Bird resting on a log, 1998. There is a painterly freedom and vitality in the piece where through very limited means Bowen appears to celebrate the joy of a bird holding a worm in its beak. There is a disarming simplicity and directness of expression where nothing could be added to the print to enhance its meaning or impact. The earthy palette and clear articulation heightens the impact of the piece.
It is a similar case with the Moon Moose of the following year, where it appears as if a love-struck moose is transfixed in the moonlight. The ochre-coloured moose stands on an ascending brown path against the background of a starry, starry night with a full moon overhead. Nothing has been added to the print that can distract from the initial impression. Again, it is suspension of disbelief as we are admitted into a fairy tale-like world of childhood innocence.
Bowen, 20 years later, revisited a similar compositional arrangement in his monochrome etching Pony of 2019. Although the etching is less than half the scale of his bird and moose, the directness and simplicity in the structure of the work has been retained and there is a complete mastery in the treatment of the dark and light tones. The innocence has become slightly more sophisticated, but it is difficult to retain innocence over a lengthy career.
In this exhibition, Bowen has once more demonstrated why he is widely regarded as a very accomplished and respected printmaker on the Australian scene and one who has a considerable following in Europe.