In Canberra, in Petrie Plaza, Civic, stands a very large bronze sculpture, simply titled, The Big Little Man (1999). Erected in 2008, this was Dean Bowen's first large sculpture. The title is a pun referring to its predecessor, The Little Man (1997), measuring 31.5 by 27.5 centimetres, that in the Civic work has been blown up to 215 by 198 centimetres and produced in an edition of three.
In scale it is larger than life-size, but seems somewhat diminutive - child-like, simplified, flat and two-dimensional despite being 54 centimetres thick. It appears almost awkward in its space with an abstracted pattern texture covering many of the surfaces and a very tactile treatment of the moon-shaped head and the strange flat hat that appears to harbour a landscape. Stumpy legs unconvincingly hold the considerable weight of the torso.
In Gungahlin, near a bus stop on Flemington Road near Nullarbor Avenue, appeared The Big Little Man's companion, Bowen's Lady with Flowers (2011), of similar dimensions but with a slightly more ambitious polychrome treatment of the bronze. The figure is again somewhat self-contained, lost within its own daydream or participating in some sort of children's ritual.
The Melbourne-based artist Dean Bowen has worked for much of his life under the spell of Jean Dubuffet - a giant in world art - who in his philosophy of art making promoted what he saw as a more authentic form of art that embraced children's art, street art, the art of prisoners and the art of those with intellectual disabilities.
Dubuffet called this "raw art" or "art brut" and this concept was embraced by many artists throughout America and Australia, especially at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, where Bowen received his early training, and at the art school at Monash University where he studied subsequently.
The big book on the sculptures of Dean Bowen, like so many of the sculptures that it describes, is over-sized - more like a piece of elegant furniture designed for a very large coffee table. The author is Andrew Stephens who is best known within the art community as the editor of Imprint, the journal of the Print Council of Australia.
Stephens characterises the sculptures of Bowen through their stillness. Describing one of Bowen's sculptures, he writes, "An enormous feline stands still and alert, projecting an air of concentrated focus. The lion-sized animal is not on the prowl, or a hunt. It is merely there in the world, its presence quiet and respectful. Happiness - contentment with what is happening - manifests in the here and now, evidenced by this benign, elongated animal. It is titled, simply, Cat (2012). Unweighted by any forceful allegory, this creature is precisely what it appears to be. And that is more than enough: wholly being in this moment."
It was in the early 1990s, when Bowen was primarily known as a printmaker working within the general traditions of Dubuffet and "art brut", that he turned seriously for the first time to sculpture. He was inspired by an exhibition of the sculptures of Fernando Botero that he encountered in Paris in 1992-93 with its dry humour and bulbous oversized forms. He had also seen an exhibition of Alberto Giacometti's sculptures with their fluidity of bronze shapes.
Subsequently Bowen has continued to make sculptures, mainly in conjunction with the Perin Sculpture Foundry, of cast bronze on different scales and in different editions, as well as assemblages made from various found materials. The artist presents himself as a "rural lad" with a good dose of bush humour and a taste for the absurd. Echidnas, wombats, owls, dogs and koalas make frequent appearances in his work together with the stoic human characters, sometimes in unusual combinations, such as an echidna on a man's head. Stephens in his erudite text explains that the artist's grandmother, in reference to her grandson's spikey hair, suggested that it looked as if he had an echidna on his head. It is less clear as to why owls also make an appearance on people's heads.
Bowen is well known to Canberra audiences and apart from his public sculptures, the Beaver Galleries have shown his work for more than 20 years. However, he is an artist who works over three art forms - printmaking, painting and sculpture, which is not an infrequent combination with Australian printmakers. Although Stephens does make the point that the three streams of Bowen's art making flow independently, sometimes one feeding the other, it would be good to explore this interrelationship a little more closely.
From my observations, Bowen as an artist thinks as a printmaker, even in his paintings and sculptures, with the concept of layering of flat surfaces and exploring the unexpected interactions that are encountered on the matrix.
Stephens writes, "Bowen's initial foray into sculpture was underscored by a desire to broaden his repertoire and avoid getting into a rut, but he was also intrigued by the more challenging idea of bringing his work and ideas more fully into the physical world, to explore the relative advantages of three versus two dimensions."
This book presents an excellent overview of Bowen's sculptural oeuvre with a relatively short and accessible text and superb photographs.
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