As Justin Bower launches his latest works at our Los Angeles gallery, our Artistic Director, Maeve Doyle, addresses how Bower's fractured portraits of emotionless expressions investigate the way in which we define ourselves in a digital and virtual age.
Maeve Doyle: Is the character in your artwork a self-portrait or a portrait of an alter-ego you’ve created? Or do you even think in those terms?
Justin Bower: No, I don’t really think in those terms. I don’t even think of it as a portrait really, they’re more avatars or archetypes. I’d go so far as to say they are just armatures to hang paint on that have the figure as a starting point. What I’m really interested in is Abstract Expressionism: I saw the meaning in figurative painting but the exhilaration of Abstract Expressionism really got me too. I really struggled to find a way to put those two together in a meaningful way that would be timely - I saw an opening where this new technology was bubbling up - I myself was experiencing it. So, I said what’s missing in figurative painting today and let’s deal with it.
There is something so contemporary and at the same time futuristic about your portraits. Care to comment on that?
I wanted it to be familiar and disturbing and also electrifying. I wanted it to pop off the canvas. That’s where discipline comes in, trying to make a connection with people because there is a sense of realism that I use. Although I am trying to get further and further away from that, without completely destroying the figure. There is this balance that I like to do between familiar… you enter in it even without the art historical knowledge… you can understand it along with the mystery of what art should be.
The images you make have a cautionary message that resonates non-verbally. It’s just a fact that when you see them that you know there is an emergency of some kind going on. If you could describe, in five words, what you paint in your pictures, what would they be?
*Laughs* - You know there is a funny story about Hemmingway. He was at a bar, of course, and somebody comes up to him and says ‘Hey, you’re supposed to be this writer of brevity and impact. Give me a story in five words.’ And when I read this, it shocked me because it was so brilliant. He says to the guy, ‘Okay. For sale, unused baby shoes.’ And if that doesn’t concoct a whole novel in your head, I don’t know what would. I am not nearly as brilliant as Hemmingway so I don’t know really what five words I would use!
So you’ve mastered oil painting and as a craftsman your skills are quite perfected. Would you ever consider a collaboration? And if so, with who?
The only thing I would say about that is that I was contacted by an artist here in LA called RETNA. We were thinking of doing something together. I thought that would have been a magnificent connection. We were thinking of him doing the background then I put the face on there. That’s really the only time I’ve thought of collaborating with anybody. Otherwise, I’m just kind of a solo digger who just keeps digging.
Exactly what are your fears for humanity and how does painting simultaneously alleviate and exasperate that psychological state?
That’s a big question. I fear for the soul of the individual and that’s really what I think I’m trying to, at the same time resurrect and keep in play, and then warn that there are some serious problems that we are heading up against. 10 Years ago when I started the project, I never thought it would be so salient today. But I really do think it’s a problem. I see just freedom of thought and the soul of subjectivity being loosened and tried to be captured and used and that frightens me. Also, at the same time, you’re right by painting these images it reaffirms that freedom and that intellect. Where you will find the soul of humanity, is through art.
Where do you show your work and what is coming up for you in the future? And how do you feel about the changing way we view art, be it online viewing rooms or tracked and trace entrance into galleries?
In particular to my work, I have noticed, even though it is dealing with digital stuff, it seems to photograph well and the images on your phone or computer seem to work okay. But I’ve never realised until I deliver a painting or have a quasi-show that people come up to me and say ‘Wow you really need to see these in person.’ Its almost universal with my work from what I’ve seen. I absolutely love that. I think that’s a great thing. I like to work with very tactile and very lush paint. It ‘s hard to see that on computer screens so I’m always very glad that people say I really had no idea until I saw it in person, the effect of your painting. I have a show in Maddox in LA in June. Hopefully, by that time we will have things open up a bit more and come see the show in person.
You can listen to the full podcast with Maeve and Justin here.