Studio Visit: Justin Bower, A Face in Time
“Great art is always a way of concentrating, reinventing what we call fact, what we know of our existence – a reconcentration – tearing away the veils that fact acquires through time.” ~ Francis Bacon
Written by Gary Brewer
We live in a time of radical transition. Biological systems have been shaped through human intervention for millennia. Since the Neolithic period when humans developed agriculture and sought to maximize the yield of food from plants by manipulating plant species to hybridize a more flavorful or durable crop, we have been enhancing our chances of survival and enriching our pleasure.
Animals were altered through mating the best specimens to achieve a different stronger animal – better suited for specific types of work, or to produce a better tasting food. Breeding and plant hybridization have altered our world.
We are now in a period when the biological manipulation of our own DNA is at hand. Identifying defects in an embryo may lead to prenatal treatment that can identify and treat certain diseases, or can create traits that we deem superior. It is a brave new world and it has a destabilizing effect on certain humanistic values. Self, identity and the integrity of our subjective soul, are in a moment of deep uncertainty.
How does one capture this moment of transition in painting and take on the figure with the weight of history embedded in its flesh and marrow, and reinterpret it through this shifting lens, where so many long held beliefs of self-hood are in flux. These are the questions and meditations that have shaped the paintings of Justin Bower.
When we spoke at his studio, I asked him what he was doing, what are the motives that shape his approach to painting? He made a succinct and precise statement, “I want to create images that can only be understood through this moment in time.”
As a student he was reading and reflecting on the ideas of post-human philosophy: the theory that technology would alter our path as purely biological beings and that a synthetic hybridization of humans and technology is at hand.
Justin said of this, “We are already changing through technology. Even before we start using some new device, we have adapted to where it is already within us. We comprehend and learn to use new devices and systems seamlessly.”
Justin wanted to strip down these ideas and the human figure to their essentials. What kind of image would reflect these profound shifts? These thoughts shaped his mind, preparing him to discover something through this need for a metaphoric image.
While looking through a book of Hindu Art, Justin came upon an image of a demigod with multiple eyes. “When I looked at the image, the multiple eyes created a startling response, it was shifting, and my mind could not quite focus on the image, as the triple eyes destabilized the face. In that moment I decided that I would make images of the face with multiple shifting eyes, noses and other features to create a subjective experience of destabilization. An expression of self in this moment; shifting away from humanistic values to a post-human world.”
Justin uses a rich range of virtuosic painterly approaches. He is a masterful painter, blending the muscular power of bold gestural strokes with a deep skill set of accurately capturing the figure. It is a dance between pattern, abstraction, and realism. The paintings become a synthetic fusion of multiple narratives and approaches to painting, coalescing into a powerful gestalt.
There are abstract passages that suggest a computer screen where glitches occur, creating colorful abstract patterns. They also suggest a breach in the paradigm of reality that we see, as though another world is revealing itself. There is also a similarity to Gerhard Richter’s abstractions, adding a layer of historical reference.
Justin is a beautiful colorist with a deep sense of design; the myriad elements all fuse seamlessly into images that enter one’s consciousness with an intense immediacy. Justin said of the multi-tiered stylistic mélange, “I want all of these different elements, the image of the face with multiple eyes, the glitches, the abstract gestures and the graphic patterns to act metaphorically upon the viewer. They represent the many layers and forces that shape our identity and our perceptions. It is a way to express the destabilized moment we are in, when all of our beliefs are in transition. That we are now able to manipulate DNA and make choices about what a person being born will be, is something I am trying to capture. It is the idea of painting the figure in a way that can only be understood in this moment.”
As we spoke, I brought up a quality I sensed in his work, an approach of creating paintings with a high degree of artifice and artificiality. I mentioned Alfred Hitchcock and how he used it to create a strange tension between belief and an awareness of artifice. Justin is also a lover of Hitchcock’s films and of the psychic dissonance that is created through that tension.
Justin spoke about his approach to painting and how he employs artifice as an aspect of the metaphoric structure. “I do not feel that the pure visceral connection to another artist’s central nervous system, like Francis Bacon for instance, is possible in today’s painting. Everything we experience is mediated through technology and media. I want to create a distance using this quality of artifice. I feel it represents the world in which we live.”
Francis Bacon is a deep influence on Justin’s work. The human figure in extremis, the creation of a netherworld where the figure is freed from our mundane world to exist in an existential Twilight Zone; a place where the raw nakedness of a collective primordial scream can be understood. Like all serious painters Justin knows that he must reinvent the metaphor through the intensity of painting and then destroying work, until a poetic epiphany gives birth to original form. For years he has focused on the face. It has a mandala-like immediacy and is a perfect vehicle for the post-human poetics of deconstruction, and the sleight of hand blending artifice and emotion. He is currently developing paintings employing the whole figure, finding a way to disengage it from this pedestrian world to exist in a space free to capture the metaphoric language of this moment in time that Justin is seeking to communicate.
Painting is many things. It captures the spirit of our times through the sensibility of the maker. From pure unmediated expressions of emotion, to philosophical constructs that guide the mind of the viewer into deeply considered narratives, realized with a specific character and quality of the painting to capture the right tone. Its supple malleability makes it one of the greatest tools to communicate the subjective reality of the world in which an artist lives.
From Van Eyck’s slow, deeply felt world of spatial gradients within the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, to the immediacy of a drip of paint electrifying a canvas in Jackson Pollock – a metaphor reflecting the accelerating speed of the 20th century – oil painting has communicated a resonant echo of the spiritual reality of each epoch. Justin pushes paint to reveal the strange state of our world, in the anxious balance between our biological origins and the potential that we have to rewrite the genetic codes of our own bodies.
Justin Bower employs a deeply sophisticated approach to painting. It is a mix of the pure joy of painting blended with a profound ambition, to create paintings of the figure that are relevant to the world in which we live. Like the many windows that revealed the private worlds of people in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”, Justin Bower opens up myriad windows that reveal the complex universe of forces of technology and biology that are shaping the future of life.