Harrison Bowe

Landscape Reconsidered in Harrison Bowe's Passing Through.

Harrison Bowe's works subtly eschew norms and conventions associated with Romantic landscape paintings in his first solo exhibition, Passing Through, at Despard Gallery, which will open on the 5th of April. Depicting the Ioinnekumme, or Arthur Ranges in south-west lutruwita (Tasmania), Bowe's works balance counterposing states, finding rhythm and harmony amid jagged rocks.

Bowe’s art may at first recall the landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. We discern mist glazed heavens that offer visual cadences with Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (1818). As with Friedrich, Bowe approaches his subject as a sort of temple, describing the cliffs as “quartzite cathedrals.” But unlike Friedrich’s Wanderer, there is no figure juxtaposed against the expanse of nature.

In some instances, there is something welcoming about Bowe’s works which breaks from the tradition of framing nature as overpowering the human. The apocalyptic scenes of Philip James de Loutherbourg, John Martin, Friedrich, or Turner remain invaluable, but Bowe charts a different course. Take the work, Sculpted By Time To Change Again, 2023, where the cliffside appears (at least to me) to be a pathway to the sky. Interpreted in this way, the work presents us with a sort of ambiguity. After all, the ranges remain dangerous – one would not wish to treat the cliffside as a pathway, but at the same time, the view is absent of dread. This sense of balance also exists compositionally between the works, forming a totality whereby some works seem to gaze up and others down, while some of the works are vertical and others are horizontal.

Without overt human presence, the preponderance of icy and stony colours may suggest desolation to some viewers. Yet the balanced quality of the images still harkens to a more intimate encounter. Despite the absence of the Rückenfigur, the title of the show and series acknowledge the presence of the artist-observer. The works have a sense of intimacy, of closeness rather than distance for this reason. But at the same time, there is something casual about the idea of passing through, gesturing a fleeting encounter. In this way, Bowe seeks a balance that also avoids the pitfalls of twee. By implicitly acknowledging his role as observer, Bowe escapes from the idea of presenting an untouched wilderness, a dream that has often been a colonist’s fantasy.

Of course, there is also the implication that the states of landscape pass through – that they are not permanent, but Bowe acknowledges the observer in another way. Bowe embraces a painterly quality, a type of artifice, in A Fleeting Glance, 2023, where the image appears to disintegrate at the bottom of the frame, giving way to a contrastive peach colour. Similarly, rocky nature also cedes to pink in the other works, often (though not always) to a lesser extent (it remains noticeable in Dawn’s Embrace, 2023). Bowe manages not fall prey to creating an unnecessary opposition between subject and object as the landscape trailing off reveals a liminal state between the real and the recalled. Indeed, through titles such as An Evanescent Memory and Looking Back (Sometimes Things Appear Different After Moving Through Them), Bowe further accentuates the way landscapes meld with memory.

Still, there is no doubt that Bowe’s landscapes owe a debt to notions of the sublime, which emphasised the majesty of nature but also intimated dread and a tension with the human subject. Indeed, Bowe recounts that he found “the Arthurs to be an unforgivingly wild yet beautiful place,” and underscores that it was “a demanding journey over cold rocks and past sleeping tarns.”

Such experiences date back to at least the travel writing of the late 1600s. When English writers, John Dennis and Joseph Addison visited European Alps, they were astounded by the strange and menacing beauty of their environments. Dennis wrote that “Nature was seen Severe and Wanton,” and yet confessed that that nature (or Nature) “moves us less, where she pleases us more.” In other words, nature appeared more powerful and imposing when it seemed less cultivated for human pleasure. Meanwhile Addison described the Alps in terms of “a decayed body,” replete with “veins of stone shooting out of them.”

Both Dennis and Addison were enraptured by the Alps, and Dennis struck upon the term “delightful horror” as a description – a phrase that Edmund Burke would plagiarize and popularize, as he transformed their descriptions into a lexicology of the sublime. But in contrast to the human-centered experience of nature, Bowe’s works instead offer a sense of calm without the environmental melodrama inherited from historical depictions of the sublime.

This is not to suggest that there is no sense of movement or force behind Bowe’s works. Bowe’s very practice encounters movement and change, beginning with spray paint, and then building layers of enamel, oil paint and beeswax, which are then shaped with different palette knives. The result is expressive, and the process creates a sense of movement as though the rocks vibrate as the landscapes become gestural, forever being articulated. The landscape is not static, or frozen as in a photograph. Nor are they crystallized as in some of the paintings of Friedrich.

Belonging to a Romantic landscape tradition, Bowe does not cleave to tradition. Bowe’s works are distinctive, evocative, and meditative, at once balancing the solid and the ethereal, through the meeting of stone and sky, gradation, and texture. In short, he does not merely depict moments of transition, but also expresses and balances the shifting and forever changing quality of nature and memory.

Passing Through
5 April – 29 April, 2023
Despard Gallery, Hobart

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