VAN Critique Jan/Feb 2015: Debra Bowden ‘Beginnings’ at the Toradh Gallery

Debra Bowden Cave V11
Debra Bowden, ‘Cave V11’, 2013, pigment, oil bar and mica on paper

Debra Bowden
17 November – 16 December 2014
Toradh Gallery, Ashbourne, Meath

. Why are they such a popular subject for paintings? In many hands, even when well executed, they come across as sentimental, chocolate-box images, anodyne and unchallenging. In Debra Bowden’s work, now showing at the Toradh Gallery in Ashbourne, Co. Meath, they are none of the above. Of the 24 pieces on display, the majority feature this benign-seeming animal, but its representation goes well beyond the simply bovine, reaching as far back as prehistoric times.

In its subject matter, execution and choice of palette, Bowden’s work evokes the primitive cave drawings of Lascaux and Chauvet. These works are fascinating. Were they recordings or decorations? A means of communication or ritual markings? Whatever their purpose, they are a vivid reminder of that most human activity: creation, and a rebuke not to confuse primitive with paltry or puerile.

The warm ochres and rough materials that Bowden uses – sand, pigment, mica – bring us on that heady journey into the depths of prehistoric markings, reminding us of our origins and remonstrating with us for assuming that in our evolution we have somehow left behind the primeval. Recently, there have been anecdotes about cattle becoming more aggressive, explained perhaps by their lack of human contact in an environment which is more industrialised and less peopled than in the past. When Bowden speaks of exploring that “empathetic relationship between man, his environment and the indigenous animals that inhabit it,” she is asking us to examine just how strong that relationship is now, and to wonder what we may have lost over time.

In this exhibition, Bowden shows six images from what is presumably a larger series – the numbering here is not sequential – of which ‘Cave I’ is the most dramatic. It presents to the viewer an animal that, although familiar in form, has nothing of the bucolic or pastoral. This is a beast, a force to be reckoned with, presented in strong, minimal lines and earthy, tactile media. There is confidence and coherence in Bowden’s conjunction of skill and subject matter.

Debra Bowden, Free, 2013
Debra Bowden, ‘Free’, 2013, sand, pigment and oil bar on board

Her palette too shows confidence. Apart from the ochres, which dominate, there are occasional strong but harmonious lines of red, black and yellow, as in ‘Family’. Her work is pleasing to the eye, but never merely decorative, and for the fellow artist, her use – and combination – of media such as oil bar, sawdust, and mica, and her range of support – paper, board, wood – are a call to greater exploration. Beginnings proclaims an artist fully engaged with her process.

However, some works, though still eye-catching, are less successful than others. ‘Horn’, a piece of carved found wood, feels out of place in this exhibition, though the other work in carved wood, ‘Ice’, fits in, perhaps because the subject matter is of a piece with the overall theme. The three pieces based on sheep seem a little overworked and lack the looseness and confidence that otherwise characterise Bowden’s work. A handprint on one rings a false note, and two of the titles confuse: there seems to be too little difference visually between ‘Free’ and ‘Fenced In’ to justify the opposition.

Indeed, in many cases the works are somewhat undermined by their titles. Bowden’s pieces appeal to the imagination in a visceral way which links us to those cave people who first drew on walls many aeons ago. Titles such as ‘Black Sheep’, ‘Cowgirl’, ‘Thirsty’ are too literal for images that are all about non-verbal communication. They jolt the viewer into the now and leave nothing to the imagination; they demand an interpretation which is limiting, both to the viewer and the work.

Throughout ‘Beginnings’, Bowden demonstrates a completely personal style, especially in relation to the potentially banal subject matter of cows and sheep. It is clear from the work – and supported by her comments – that she is exploring, testing her themes, her media, her practice. She is reaching back “to the beginning of art,” attempting to understand what we are trying to communicate when we make marks on paper, canvas, wood or cave walls. She doesn’t always get it right, but she has the confidence and the commitment to push beyond the mis-hits, and delve further and deeper to reach for her truth. That is what art is all about.

Mary Catherine Nolan is a Dublin-based artist and writer with a background in linguistics.

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