Nancy Bowen‘s layered sculptures, installations, and collages coalesce stories of different cultures, of past and present. Her objects bring to mind a flavor of unidentified myths, archetypes and rituals, often involving images of the female body. The artist talks about her art making process, projects, and the way she sees her role as an art educator.
AS: Tell me a bit about what brought you to art.
Nancy Bowen: I always drew and made things as a child but never thought about art as something to do with my life. I grew up in a house filled with strange and wonderful things because my parents collected early American objects. There was a figure head from a ship hanging in the dining room, and a folk-art sculpture of Miss Liberty in the living room. Also, my father had worked in Saudi Arabia during WWII so we had a lot of things from the Middle East in the house. From these objects I learned that things could hold histories and secrets. My family was very crafty- my father made us jig saw puzzles and toys and my mother made us clothes. I learned to use my hands at an early age. I was a good student and interested in many things, so I was steered into academics. I began college as a pre-med student and then changed to architecture. In a freshman architecture critique, a professor humiliated me and told me to go to the art department if I wanted to continue making what I was making. And while it was a painful incident- he was right! I never looked back! I left Stanford, and eventually transferred to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where I found my tribe immediately.
AS: You call yourself an “artistic archaeologist.” Can you elaborate on that?
Nancy Bowen: As I was saying before- objects tell stories. Materials contain information. I love to travel, and I often research various craft techniques and ornamental styles from India, for example. I will later reclaim them as my own, giving them a new life by combining them with an object from another time or culture. This clash of information and aesthetic allows me to simultaneously look backwards and forwards in time. It lets me optimistically imagine unlikely bedfellows. And there are really interesting visual similarities between say some early American graphics and some Indian patterns.
AS: In your recent solo exhibition “For Each Ecstatic Instant,” at the Kentler International Drawing Space you showed drawings, collages, and installations. What is the relationship between these forms in your work?
Nancy Bowen: Most of my drawings are actually collages. I approach two dimensional work the same way I approach a sculpture- by adding and subtracting imagery and information. It is a method I like because I can try things out without ruining what I have already done. I like to lay out the structure and then add color by hand. In the end I think it is hard for viewers to tell how I make the work- it is a mixture of analog and digital, hand and machine. I like when the lineage is a little confusing. As for the installations, I only make them when I have an exhibition opportunity. I love the challenge of an unusual space. Kentler had such a wonderful steel floor and all the eccentricities of an old space. I felt it was a really appropriate space to do the installation “For Each Ecstatic Instant” because of its ties to history and Americana.
AS: Let’s look at your shrine-like multimedia installation “For Each Ecstatic Instant.” What is the genesis of this work? (idea and process)
Nancy Bowen: The idea started from a small rubbing of one of my ancestor’s grave stones. My family has lived in New England for twelve generations. We were dragged to cemeteries throughout my childhood. I became interested in the visual symbols and rituals that surround the American death experience. I wanted to create an immersive installation in which I made a literal space to contemplate death. I blew up and projected a rubbing that my grandfather had made and created a collograph. At 9 foot by 9 foot, the image was larger than life and the audience could move into it literally and metaphorically. I added a rain storm made of glass crystals and some early American images of comets and asteroids to evoke the idea of natural cycles. Most importantly for me- I added all the first names of the women who were my ancestors. In the graveyards of early America, the women were listed usually only in relation to men- “Daughter of” or “Wife of”. I wanted to give them their own agency. So, I created a scroll that had medieval images of babies in the womb cascading down the center of the scroll with a border made from the list of names. I mostly used black, white and grey in the installation to create a quiet mood. The small accents of yellow add a little spark.
AS: And what about a collaged drawing like “52 Great All American (Male) Personalities”?
Nancy Bowen: When I was cleaning my parents’ house after their deaths, I was faced with a huge library. No one wants books anymore, so I thought I would use them as collage-material. I noticed how many of the books had a tacit patriarchal bias. I decided to take them apart and reconstruct them with a feminist point of view. This particular book featured 52 American great personalities, and of course they are all men. So I covered up their stories with color blocks and placed a very female abstraction over the block of them. “She” had energetic strands emitting from her body and I thought of the image as a female power surge over the men’s stories. I made a similar version in which I overlaid an abstract organic form made from dozens of the Indian goddess Kali’s tongues collaged together. It is a loud abrasive female image growing wild over the men’s stories.
AS: You seem to draw in your work on a wide array of cultural sources – an Emily Dickinson poem, an 1833 dictionary, maps, and skulls. In her excellent essay to your Kentler show, Sarah Sentilles noted that “redaction” plays a crucial role in this exhibition (and most likely throughout your work). What is your take on that?
Nancy Bowen: I like what she said about it in her essay “Redaction troubles what we think we see and reminds viewers there is always misinformation and missing information. Every image is made up.” In these works, I was interested in showing the bias, but I also wanted to posit a new order. So, I redacted some information, but always in the service of a kind of beautiful abstraction. And then often I added an imaginative female presence over the redactions.
AS: That also goes for your sculptures, I guess. What can you tell me about “Artemis Dilemma” for example?
Nancy Bowen: That piece was inspired by the famous sculpture of the Ephisean Artemis with her multiple breasts. I wanted to make a powerful female image. I had the giant conch shell and I liked what happened when I placed it where a head would be. The piece then becomes figurative and very suggestive. I placed it on a small chair to give it a domestic feel. I like the way the natural object slides seamlessly into the clay object. Again, I think it is not so clear how the piece is made or came to be. It is an assertive object that revels in its pinkness.
AS: I have been lately reading quite a lot about collage history and some related discourse (mostly on the feminist end). I am curious to hear some of your thoughts on the collage elements in your 2 and 3-d work – within art historical context?
Nancy Bowen: Well I have always loved the incredibly inventive collages of Hannah Hoch and Max Ernst. And not so long ago I saw a show of John Ashbery’s collages that was fantastic. I think artists like Nancy Spero, Wangechi Mutu, David Wojnarowicz to name a few all used collage to rail against the status quo and create new worlds on paper. From a feminist perspective, Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer’s “Femmage” essay still holds up. And I like the way Jack Halberstam talks about the queering of collage. But I don’t think about any of this consciously when I am working. It is just a way to proceed that I understand and helps me put one foot in front of the other in terms of making things.
AS: In your 2018 fascinating conversation with Susan Silas and Chrysanne Stathacos, you describe the ways you navigated within the 80s feminist chasm – those who saw a “woman” as a social construct (like Barbara kruger, Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons) and those who saw it as an embodied state. Can you elaborate on that?
Nancy Bowen: I think I said it all in that other interview. But briefly, the feminist world was very polarized at that time between “essentialists” and “social constructivists”. It was very hard to be taken seriously if you were involved with making images of the body, which I was. It was seen as a reiteration of the male gaze. There was no room for nuance or imagination. There was just theory.
AS: You also say there that you fell on the embodied side of that divide, and that you were discouraged by the response to your work at the time, turning to theoretical discourse to justify your way. In hindsight you say that you were not secure enough in your own voice. This is a bold statement and a crucial point. Can you talk a bit more about that?
Nancy Bowen: My response at the time was that it did not make sense to eliminate images of the female body because to me that was giving up power to create our own legacy. Why would we want ourselves to disappear? I was more interested in the messy maybe not right space of trying to figure out what an image of a woman COULD look like. But it wasn’t the right time for that, and I was told on more than one occasion that what I was making was basically “bad feminism”. I was not all that secure and those comments echoed in my head. I retrenched for a bit and read a lot of theory. I am not one to work from theory, but at least I understood the argument better. And my work changed and developed – I moved to a much more fragmented sense of the body and started thinking about what it felt like to inhabit a body rather than what it looked like. That allowed me to move into abstraction while keeping a hold on representation.
AS: In that fascinating conversation with Susan and Chrysanne you relate quite a bit to your experience (turmoil at times) and role as an educator. I won’t make you repeat. What would you like to add?
Nancy Bowen: I find teaching right now to be particularly interesting and challenging. I have many students now who are exploring their sexuality in ways that we couldn’t imagine when I was young. I am learning so much from them. I also have many students who are the sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants and they are the first in their families to go to college, and they are getting a degree in fine arts! The students are very insistent on making their work relevant to real life situations and counter
AS: What are you working on these days?
Nancy Bowen: I am doing research for a project on witches. One of my ancestors on my mother’s side, Samuel Sewall, was one of the hanging judges at the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. Later in his life, he recanted and became an advocate for Native Americans and also an abolitionist- both unusual attitudes for that time. I have no idea what I will do but I am busy researching.
All photos by Alan Weiner