Margaret Bowland, Twelve, pastel, charcoal, acrylic on mounted paper
Turning around in the art world and classes of the 1970's, I could see nothing but circling on the circle itself, or the line, or color. There were no metaphors. What had been the means of examining meaning itself had now tumbled to the table as merely themselves: a stick, a blob of paint, a pattern on a subway wall, watermarks on a ceiling. The conversation in the art classrooms of that time was whether or not to use masking tape in creating a pattern of lines, or to let them have a freer edge. I felt the world had gone mad.
In an interview with Huffington post, you said that the English department at the University of North Carolina was asking the big questions. One of which was: how do you deal with death without the solace of God? Have you found an answer for that?
I don't think anyone has ever found a solace, after first becoming aware of the inevitability of death, to compete with the notion of " a heavenly Father".
The first time primitive man ever heard thunder, it must have wakened in him two feelings simultaneously: that of fear and glorious awe. To be human is to become conscious of death. The strength and optimism of youth allows us to swat that knowledge away at first. This feeling of imperviousness to death. It's why soldiers are young. Older people know that the end actually will come and are much more reluctant to hurl themselves into harms way. Ignorance is bliss.
I was raised in a very religious Southern Baptist household. Our lives revolved around the First Baptist Church of Burlington N.C. My earliest memories involve kneeling on a floor, or bowed in the church, yearning to hear, yearning to believe in God. I never remember a single moment in which I did not know that the voice I heard in my head was my own. Living within the imagination of a child, I remember with crystal clarity the sound of Santa's sled on the roof, the stomp of his reindeers' hooves, but even as I strained into the dark to hear Jesus speak to me, I never did. The result of this was to leave me feeling damned. I did not doubt that all those bowed heads around me in church were listening to God. I simply knew that he chose not to speak to me. So what had begun as a universal solace, for me, became a means of feeling culled from the herd, reviled.
At 17, in the English Department of the University of NC at Chapel Hill, a professor first described the Bible as "a poem". He walked us back through its origin as a work of literature by a collection of men and one that borrowed heavily from myths already in existence at the time in which they were writing. I will never forget him telling us, in a matter of fact tone, that Jesus had never written anything: that we had no credible quotes from the time of his life and that the first time his "words" were recorded was 70 years after his death. That changed my life. Even naive and very young, I had heard a family story change in the retelling of my few years on earth. I could not imagine how many different versions of a story could occur in 70 years, not one soul still alive who had ever seen the man in question. So, yes, I was freed from feeling "damned", but simultaneously bereft, that the being I believed was damning me, did not even exist. It was a double loss.
At Chapel Hill, I found others, mainly teachers, who would speak of these matters with me, and most importantly, they showed me the vast world of literature whose main struggle was to come to grip with these very facts. Neither those teachers or all of the artists whose works they lay before me could offer an "answer" for the finality of death. What I have gained, as a kind of solace, from a lifetime of reading and the experience of some painting, sculpture and theater, is simply the respect for the courage it takes a single person to face down the fact of his or her knowledge of death and in its face, create something of beauty.
BEAUTY IS THE SOLACE OF DEATH. IT CANNOT OVERCOME IT IN A SINGLE LIFE, BUT BEAUTY CAN OVERCOME DEATH IN ITS COLLECTIVE SOUL.
How has your art changed over time?
My "art" was at first, only the usual attempt of the child to mirror his or her surroundings, to transform an object before one into lines on a piece of paper. That then progresses to the greater ambition of drawing the people in ones life. And that is an attempt to hold on to them, to stop the passage of time.
My art has changed over time as I have gathered the courage to actually make the work that obsesses me. I studied the art that I wished to emulate, the works in museums. I knew that what I was being taught in college, namely to stand before a white cotton duck canvas, and start painting, was not how the works I loved had been created. I knew of no one who was working like I wished to work so I began reading any treatise I could find that would lead me to where I needed to go.
Through reading these books and essays and by going back and forth to the Met and the Frick, I began to understand how these works were created. I began by painting portraits on commission. That allowed me to hone my craft and not pay a model. The portrait work literally created me. Then late in life, about twenty years ago, I began to make paintings of the stories I wished to tell. I well knew that these stories were not following any appreciated cannon of the day but I had always wished to make these paintings and time was growing short. And, my worst fears were realized, as they so often are. After I had a body of work together, featuring a series I did after Manet's "Olympia", I asked for studio visits from art dealers here in New York. They would pass through silently, then tell me that I was "very talented" but that I was "not making modern art". And I would mourn for a while and begin again.
Margaret Bowland, Olympia Series #3, oil on linen
I was quite capable of following in the trends I saw in Art America, Art Forum, but those modes of expression did not resonate with me, they did not say what I wished to say. It is said that the one true mistake one can make in the art world of my lifetime is to "be sincere". There must always be a screen formed by the picture plane that attests to the fact that you, the artist, well know that this is just a painting. There must be a wink. I think of it as if the only director allowed to make films today is Wes Anderson and the only actor allowed to be filmed is Bill Murray, And while I admire them both, other directors and actors are making different kinds of films.
The world of film has a populist audience. The entire world can weigh in on any movie made. Anyone can see, own, any movie made. So the range of films can be as varied as the people alive in the world. Painting is a couture business. For example, I only know a handful of artists who can afford to own art. Amongst ourselves, we trade. The prices of art works are beyond us. So the group that knows the most about what is being made cannot vote. They have no voice.
John Seed, in his terrific new book "My Art World" has a perfect observation to explain the world in which we live. He points out that in the 19th century, there was a real Academie in France. It had a building, windows doors. You knew if you were in or out. When the show was hung " Salon de Refuse" it was in a different building. The lines were clearly drawn. He points out that the Academy is just as ferociously controlled by a handful of people now as it was then. Only now there is no obvious building. Artists are left to wander, to strain to understand what the Academy wants. But it has always been quite clear in my life time. The avant guard became the guard a very long time ago. And that guard wanted nothing to do with narrative figure paintings. Especially not those painted in a manner that implied contiguous space. I want my viewers to step into my paintings. I want them to see what I see, care about what moves me. This is the third rail in the art world. I have known, all of my life, that I was doing the wrong thing. But as Saul Bellow wrote, "the soul wants what the soul wants" and mine has been particularly loud and off key.
I read that you teach at the New York Academy of Art. What’s something you’ve observed many of your students struggle with, and what’s your advice on the matter?
The one thing they all have in common is that they have not been taught "composition." Literally, how to place the subject, scene, etc. on the canvas. They see this as hit or miss, like "pin the tale on the donkey". This kills me but it is one of the subjects lost in the American AbEx (abstract expressionist) years.
One thing all art forms have in common is composition. The conductor, the director, must have a means by which he takes you into the visual or mental space he wishes you to occupy and brings you back into the present world. He or she is composing a space through which he or she wishes to guide you. This is a very powerful thing, as we readily know from viewing films. When is the main character revealed, in what kind of lighting, in what state of mind? A composition in a painting can hold you back from the placement of marks, colors, objects, controlling the time it takes for you to apprehend the main event. By his placement of the elements of his painting he is literally telling you his story.
Take for example a painting I teach from in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is a painting by Vermeer, "A Girl Asleep". From this title you might imagine that the girl in question is quickly seen as you visually enter the painting but she is not. A still life in the foreground holds a bottle as wide as the girl. She is placed all the way across the table from this bottle.
Johannes Vermeer, A Girl Asleep, oil on canvas
Quickly, to understand composition in painting. All paintings are divided into four quadrants. We know that the space in the bottom half of the painting is the space closest to us. The artist must decided when he composes only whether to bring the viewer in from the right or the left quadrant. You have seen a piece of foliage oddly painted in the right or left quadrant at the base of a painting. You wonder why. That is to orient our approach to the work of art. That foliage, or rock, or drapery, or foot is there to say to you, "start here!'. The furthest distance the artist wishes you to experience is always going to be diagonally across in one of the upper two quadrants. The remaining two quadrants take you up and bring you back down giving you a full passage through the work. You have felt space where none exists. It is, after all, a flat panel or canvas, but you have taken a journey that you shall not forget when in the hands of an artist like Vermeer.
So, back to the painting of the girl asleep. Vermeer tells us, through his prominent placement in the bottom left quadrant, of a fallen bottle plate of fruit that teeters on an Asian carpet, to "start here". He then leads you past the girl to a room outside the one in which she is seated. He has a chair pushed up to the table keeping you from enjoying the space on the bottom right of the painting, in which you are to pass by the table to the next room. He has placed the chair so that its back cuts you off and creates a space between the chair and the table that compresses your sight. So you are rather shot through into the next room. Think of water, it moves slowly in a flat pond, quickly through closely placed rocks. So you find yourself in this second room and your eye tries to find an exit. The room is serene, ordered, but it is closed. There is no door, no window, so your eye is forced back out now, falling into the upper left quadrant in which Vermeer has placed his lovely sleeping girl. As we come back into the front room he has dropped a deep shadow above the girl like a waterfall. We drop to her sleeping face.
What has he told us, made us feel through this placement of objects, color, light? Why has he gone to such trouble to give us information about a young girl asleep at a dining table in an upper middle class home? He has composed the painting in this manner to tell you what he thinks of her life, of the life of this newly moneyed society in his Amsterdam. The young girl is well dressed and cared for. She is lovely. Everything wanted for a rich life is present, good food and drink, opulent materials, substantial furnishings. And yet, she lives in a gilded cage. He has shown her in a home she cannot leave and the very stuff of the good life have left her pushed into a corner, bored, asleep. Like any major film director he has used his composition to tell you his opinion of the life we see before us.
I go through the Met with my students looking at painting after painting showing them this phenomenon, namely how to read a painting. The structure is always the same, reading through the quadrants and the students are stunned to see how differently this simple framework is used by various painters and even by one painter as he shows us the different stories of his imagination.
My students come to me without this very important knowledge. It is the greatest thing I am able to give them and it is not my idea. This is the visual language that artists have developed since the caves. It is the birthright of every person who wishes to experience a painting and yet it has been lost.
Now people walk through museums as if they were walking into a library with only the ability to look at the spines of the books on the shelves, see the nice patterns made by the various changes of book jacket. But by knowing the simple rules of composition, it is possible to take down one of those books and read. You should see the faces of my students as they begin to comprehend what this small amount of information can do for them.
THEY CAN OPEN THESE PAINTINGS NOW AND EXPERIENCE THE SPACE AND REACT TO THE STORIES THAT ALL OF THESE ARTISTS HAVE WORKED SO HARD TO REVEAL TO THEM THROUGHOUT TIME.
Who inspired you while learning to master realism and atmospheric perspective?
No one artist inspired me to teach myself to paint as I have. I simply saw the worlds created in paintings of the past and believed in that world. I took one look at those paintings at the age of 9 and believed more in the space within those paintings than I did in the space around me. I had to get there. I was obsessed with getting there, with going to a home I believed was somewhere; I just needed to find it.
What are some of the motifs about in your work? The blue paint, the dollar bills, the light trails, the birds etc.
One of my earliest memories of being an "adult" was being smuggled into a movie theater by my older cousins to see the James Bond movie, "Goldfinger". It assaulted me, I was terrified and thrilled. In the opening scene you are shown the body of a beautiful young woman lying on a floor, completely covered in gold paint. The movie then has a character inform us that the paint has literally suffocated her. I had never realized that paint could kill.
I use great spills of paint in my works to talk about the destructive power of paint even as I am using it to create the people I love and the world into which I am placing them. Growing up in the segregated South, the single largest factor of my childhood was "color". This magical word that was used to describe all of the wonders of sight was also used to demarcate an entire group of people and to demean them. These were also the people who loved and cared for me. To say the least, this was confusing for a child.
I remember a time when I must have been four. My brother and I had been taken to the dentist. His offices were in the largest bank building in town. It awed me and I can still recall the sound my heels made on its marble floors and echoed off its marble walls. At one of the exits there were two water fountains with steps so that children could get to the spigots. The signs above those fountains said "Colored" and "White". On one occasion as we were leaving the building I walked up to the fountain, climbed its stairs and proceeded to drink. Suddenly I was airborne as my mother grabbed me away. She told this story often of her embarrassment. It was filed under the heading of "what a difficult child Margaret was to raise". Of course I had gone to the "Colored" fountain. She knew that I could read so my mother thought that I was just being difficult. But what child when offered a choice between "color" and "white" picks white? I don't know if I had expected colored water to pour forth but I knew that I wanted to give that a chance. Growing up in a world in which color is used in such a confusing way leads children to distrust adults at a very early age. Children sense with all of their beings, justice. They know when they are loved and when they are not and they trust the ones that love them. They know that the word "colored" is supposed to describe the wide range of joy as light is refracted and divided into its fabulous varieties. There is no greater miracle than color.
Margaret Bowland, Babes in the Woods, oil on linen
I use it in my paintings to both create the scene and the people within it and to speak of the menace that this world holds. In a painting I did called "Babes in the Woods. I created a forrest of dripping paint that forms the trees in which two beautiful children stand. One is black, the other white. As you see them no paint has touched them. They are innocent and have not been hit yet with the paint and the meanings it holds.
Margaret Bowland, Tangled Up in Blue, oil on linen
In the painting "Tangled Up in Blue" I have depicted two people who are close to me, the curator Dexter Wimberly and his son Dylan. One of the first things that I knew about Dexter was that he had been married very young. That marriage produced his son, Dylan, and very quickly after Dylan's birth, his mother left the marriage for another man and another state. Dexter told me that he had not known his father and he was adamant that Dylan not share the same fate. Dexter was 23 years old. He lived in Brooklyn, Dylan lived with his new family in New Jersey. But every other weekend, this 23 year old young man traveled to New Jersey and brought his son home to Brooklyn. Dexter remembers those days as a swirl of Pampers and Spongebob. I was stunned by these facts. I had never known another 23 year old who could or would take on a task such as that and persevere. So the painting that I subsequently made was using blue paint that has been dropped all over Dexter, the father and show his son Dylan in a moment in which he is looking up at a great swirl of paint that is flying past him, leaving him unscathed, still innocent. I saw this as an example of the weight of the world that the father had taken on to spare his son. From an interior room behind Dylan you can see an image of the child I paint most often. Janasia Smith, "JJ". J is covered in the white make up I use to discuss feminism. J had a difficult childhood without a father and there was no one to protect her as Dexter protected Dylan. In this painting, as in many, I have used flowers I make out of actual currency.
Margaret Bowland, White Fives, oil on linen
Long ago I asked myself, "What do we really care about? What do we truly think is beautiful?" The answer was immediate. We idolize money. And that money carries our belief system through the symbols on those bills and speaks of the power of the men we revere through their portraits dead center on every piece. I began making these flowers to play with the idea of beauty, we generally believe flowers to be beautiful, and to color these flowers, often to attack them to show the fate of the ideas represented by the men on those bills. I have used Abraham Lincoln most often on the five dollar bill. When I coat those flowers in a film of white it is to show how we have clouded, muted, the things that man stood and died for, in the times in which we are living. In "Tangled Up in Blue" I am using the color blue to symbolize the male mantle that each boy is expected to take on. Boys are blue and girls are pink. And we certainly know that in reality we are all shades of grey. But to survive in our culture we must attempt to conform to its rigid conceptions.
I also use the roses made of money in another way. I am part Cherokee. Andrew Jackson was responsible for the attempted genocide of the Cherokee people. I use the roses I made of twenties, the bills carrying his image to depict the ever present cruelty that remains a part of power.
Margaret Bowland, 2020, oil on linen
I made a painting called "2020". In this painting a young woman I have known all of her life, Julia Harrison, is wearing a wreath of flowers made of money. To the left side of the painting the wreath is composed of flowers made of twenties. Andrew Jackson's face looks out at you multiple times. To the right side of the wreath I have composed it using bills that depict our founding fathers and Lincoln. These bills are on fire. An American fighter jet flies between the flowers, the fire in its wake igniting them. The bills of Andrew Jackson remain untouched. She clutches a diamond necklace around her throat. This is my fear, that in worshipping money we are selling out our beautiful you, such as Julia to retain our power and our hold over wealth.
Margaret Bowland, The Watchers
Birds in paintings have always meant the presence of the supernatural, the dove from heaven depicting the Holy Spirit in every Annunciation ever painted. In art outside the Christian myths birds are also seen as carriers of aid from the heavens, protection from the gods. I have painted many kinds of birds but the ones that interest me the most are the common crow. I created an installation of 30 taxidermy crows that "flew" between my paintings in an exhibition. I called the installation, "The Watchers", because that is what crows mean to me. They are vilified for eating crops, not liked because they don't hold the brilliant colors of other species, yet they mourn their dead. They are around us constantly. They bear witness to all that man does, both the good and the evil. They symbolize for me this very consciousness.
Margaret Bowland, Power, oil on linen
The light patterns are derived from photos I have seen of a lazar's trail. I use them to mean NOW! With my work I am most interested in looking at all of the myths and strains of various cultures as they have developed through time and make images is which they collide. That collision is expressed by the lazar lights.
In the painting "Dust Up", I saw a show in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that featured the arts of the Deccan Plateau in India. I had never heard of this particular place and I was fascinated by its significance. The Deccan Plateau was the first place that dark skinned men met light skinned men in the 14th century on the spice trails. The region became rich from this trade and the actions of its significant citizens were portrayed, therefore in miniatures, tapestries, sculpture.
I saw a photo of a an Indian temple in the catalogue and imagined as I looked at it, the temple as a home. I imagined the miniatures as murals on the walls of this home. The miniatures were depicting African warriors lionized by the Indian artists. If one was ever depicted with a sword it meant the person was royalty.
I had been painting the black child, Janasia, for many years at this point and I suddenly saw her standing in this temple, twirling. I realized that Janasia had been born into this world not aware that her ancestry held these African kings.
Margaret Bowland, Dust Up, oil on linen
The festival celebrated for centuries in India called the Holi Festival had begun as a bonfire where it was believed the bad spirits of the past year could be burned away. As part of the worship people would smear the white ash rom the fire upon their faces. Now brightly colored powders have replaced the ash, but I was stunned by the fact that every culture stretching back for centuries had sought to whiten its women to make of them objects of worship, blank screens upon which the viewer could project his or her own fantasies. To be worshiped the individual had to be erased.
I thought of all of the strains of culture and influence await any child born onto this earth. They have no defenses against these beliefs, and time has erased many important facts as well. I replaced the mosaic tiles beneath J's feet in the resulting painting, "Dust Up", with the original silhouette of the "Barbie" logo. Barbie had been a large influence in my own life and every American girl feels its weight to this day. I created a room that would house all of many of the powers molding the life of this young black girl I had known and loved for 5 years. On top of this all, I painted a bright lazar swoosh to record the collision.
What's your vice?
My vice, well, I have many as do others. I eat too much. I indulge in terrible television at times. I am sitting here thinking of my hundreds of faults but I think by the word "vice" you are looking for guilty pleasures. I waste too much time sitting in my garden.
What are you goals for the next few years?
My goals for the present and who knows how long, is to create a new body of work that will include people that I love but in new settings that have to do with their placement within a room whose very floor reveals the world upon which they are truly standing. I have also returned to some abstract creations that are more bas relief than painting to simply luxuriate in substances and surfaces I find compelling and I wish to find away to marry these two directions, my first thought is by continuing to explore diptychs. When I paint I need to paint about something. Obviously, I find meaning in human beings, but I want to continue to find ways to reveal simultaneously their beauty and the forces at play in their worlds. I have said this before, but it is the clearest thing I can say. I am interested in beauty when it is damaged, or in danger. Living in this world marks each of us. These marks upon beauty make it matter to me, allows it to become real, to cast a shadow.
Margaret Bowland's studio space in Brooklyn, New York
What do you do when you can't sleep?
After the pounding in my heart backs off a bit, I grab the book that is always within arms reach and distract myself with another person's night sweats.
What are your favorite pieces of literature and why?
Wow. My favorite pieces of literature are many. Literature, reading of the lives of other people has literally saved my life, as it has countless others. When feeling totally alone, first as a child, and continually throughout life, a book can introduce you to another who is undergoing the same stresses, pains and fears, whose lives carry the same confusion and pain.
One of the first writers to awaken me as a teen was James Baldwin. I have named works after phrases found in his books and essays. I read his novels before I even knew of his essays. In those books I found another person whose life had been within a family consumed by the church and its teachings and lies. Specifically the Baptist Church in which his father had been a minister. In Baldwin's characters I found other people who were living lives of deceit. I knew that I had no relationship with God. I believed when young that he existed, or had existed, but I well knew that he had no interest in communicating with me. I lied about that every day of my life through silence. Baldwin's characters were also living in a world in which he or she should belong but either could not or would not.
I was raised in the shame of slavery and the Jim Crow South. You cannot lose that shame, but Baldwin made me feel that he had seen me and forgiven me before I even knew that I would live a life seeking that forgiveness. This man's life saved mine.
Portrait of artist, Margaret Bowland
We are excited to announce that Margaret Bowland's solo exhibition is now scheduled for
September 18th - October 30th, 2020.