Astrid Bowlby Talks About Sample(d)(r)

Chrysanthemum (version 1, a)
Chrysanthemum (version 1, a)
Chrysanthemum (version 1, b)
Chrysanthemum (version 1, b)
In the recent years, I have become a faithful admirer of Astrid Bowlby’s work. Her fearless and unfaltering creativity are inspiring and eye-opening. She proves that a dedicated artist should never settle: even when steady growth and recognition has marked an artist’s career, there is value in taking risks, pushing the work further and opening it up to new possibilities—rather than staying safe, perhaps for the sake of remaining sellable. Sample(d)(r) Bowlby’s latest show at Gallery Joe, is a perfect example of how she is able to embrace vulnerability in order to continue growing.
Calvin as one-legged chicken (version 1, a)
Calvin as one-legged chicken (version 1, a)
Calvin as one-legged chicken (version 1, b)
Calvin as one-legged chicken (version 1, b)

Sample(d)(r) showcases a few of Bowlby’s more well-known works as well as new explorations of familiar ideas. Despite being all the same size and done in pairs (Bowlby made two almost identical pieces of each work, one of which she keeps), the work is diverse and full of momentum and vibrancy. The show has a few of her delicate ink or pencil patterned pieces, but what really shows Bowlby’s astute versatility is her ability to also create sculptural works made with cat hair, poppy seeds or alphabet pasta; delicate colored-pencil layered stencils; and colorful, strikingly graphic, two-tone contour silhouettes of her cat Calvin. Sample(d)(r) shows Bowlby at her best, with fresh and innovative work that adeptly opens new doors for further explorations.

Scoopy Peanut (version 1, a)
Scoopy Peanut (version 1, a)
Scoopy Peanut (version 1, b)
Scoopy Peanut (version 1, b)

The following are a few highlights from a talk Astrid Bowlby gave at the opening of Sample(d)(r), at Gallery Joe, on Nov. 23, 2013.

AB: I began my career as a sculptor, and I like using a lot of different kinds of materials. I like thinking about drawing in different ways. I had been using color in my installations for a while, but it hadn’t come into my drawings. I was having trouble figuring all of that out, as well as thinking about showing everything together. But once you make two of something, all of a sudden it has this authority on its own.

I also enjoy the relationships between seemingly disparate things. Sometimes they are very connected, sometimes they are connected conceptually, sometimes they are connected visually. [By making two almost identical pieces and keeping one], I now have a set that’s my own, and I will be able to think about that in terms of an installation, where I change the relationships between things, once they have been released from their “pair” status.

I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen because I’m just starting [this project], and I figure, in three to five years, as I build upon what I’ve done here, I will have more answers to those questions . . . or maybe I’ll have more questions.

Q. It’s not really a question, but just seeing these “two and two” and “two and two,” I have a feeling you’re going to be sorry you’ve let one go . . . because you will want two and you’re going to end up making three. I know I would be that way, because they are so magical, in the way they work together.

I think what I would do instead is look at something like this and say, “oh you know, there’s that blue watercolor underneath, and then that sort of purple-y brown colored pencil. What if there were a pale orange underneath and the purple-y brown pencil?” Versus try to remake it again, make something that is very closely related.

That will definitely happen too, but I just feel like you’re going to miss the way they look together.

I don’t know, maybe we do miss the other half of the cookie, but we have to share it.

I know some of the stuff [the work in the exhibition] relates to your other work, but it seems like there are some new ideas explored. 

I would actually say there are some old ideas explored. As an undergraduate and a graduate, I was kind of a polymath. I was using gouache and acrylic, I was making wax sculptures that sit on pedestals. I think there is some imagery and ways of working here that are clearly related to those strains that kind of got left by the wayside for a variety of reasons: too busy, too much to do, too many options. So I would say it’s more of bringing back old tricks, old interests, which feels really nice.

Is this a new size for you?

No. I’ve done a lot of drawings that are about 9 x 9 inches or 11 x 8 inches. It’s kind of a head size. It also feels right for a sample, not too big, not too small. It took me a while to actually figure out the panel, the shape of the panel, what size the project was going to be. Because once you start, that’s what it’s going to be for a while.

I have thought of introducing some 9 x 9 inch circles, and who knows, maybe triangles. I don’t know, we will see how that goes. But, circles for sure, I think, will happen.

Can you briefly talk about your motivation behind your work, specifically for the people who aren’t familiar with it?

It totally depends on the piece. For example, there are three pieces in here made out of gouache and acrylic, and they are titled, “Calvin as one-legged chicken,” “Calvin as ray gun,” and “Calvin as wheelbarrow.” I have a cat named Calvin. I take Calvin for walks on the sidewalk. She is a very old cat, and she likes to lounge on the sidewalk in the sun. I started taking pictures of her from above. I have taken now probably one thousand pictures of her. I printed them out and, looking at them, I really liked the silhouette, the outline of her. So I started blowing the pictures up and cutting them out, and looking at them. Then I said “I’m going to make some gouache paintings out of these shapes. I like that one color on the outside and one color on the inside.” And that was the impetus. I have a lot more photographs of her, and so there are probably going to be a lot more of those [pieces].

[Referring to] the text pieces: I just started introducing text into my work. I did a very small installation, [which was] part of a group show, about three years ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where my black and white cut drawing installations started having words in it. I thought, “this is interesting, writing and drawing are very closely aligned.” Also, I tend to title my work using quotes. The pieces that you see here are related to a time in my life when I was ill. The Lou Reed quote is from an incredible album called “Magic and Loss,” which is about death. The whole album is about death. I’ve loved that album for years and years. That’s where that quote came from.

The other quote, “I love you more than one more day,” is from another book about death [Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking], and “Still Here,” is exactly what it says [gesturing toward her self]: I’m still here. And I’m still here, right? I’m really enjoying that.

Also, I’m really interested in accumulation, in biological patterns of growth, and their relationship to other kinds of mark making like knitting, weaving and embroidery. The black and white pieces that you see in here are related to that and are the typical kind of drawing that I have been working on for a long time. A new way of thinking about that kind of drawing is the gray and green set. I am moving into “what does color feel like with that?” And “what does changing the tone, and moving from something that’s so high contrast to something that’s more tonally closely related?” There are plenty more questions that have to do with that.

The cat hair-chewing gum piece is definitely related to my sculptural concerns.

I say to my students all the time: “don’t talk to me about needing a bulldozer. If you have a paper bag and a pencil you can make artwork.”

I was saving my cat hair from my other cat Petey, thinking, “Hmm, there is something that needs to be done here.”

And then in the interest of the idea of sampling, if you think about the title of the show, there’s a lot of ways to think about the word “Sample,” is a verb, is a noun. There’s sampling in music. You could say maybe that reminds you of Méret Oppenheim, or the surrealists, right? And my sculptures were very influenced by the surrealists.

About the colored pencil and the stencils… I’ve been collecting stencils. I’ve been collecting them, collecting them, and not using them one bit. As we all do as artists, things just pile up and you think that something’s going to happen with that. Now something is happening with it. I have six different brands of colored pencil and when I get them, I put all of the oranges together, all of the reds together, because they are quite different in very interesting ways. So now I have fifteen reds instead of three reds, fifteen oranges instead of three oranges. Probably making my own stencils will come in at some point and collecting more colored pencils and adding to the repertoire. That’s another way of thinking about a drawing.

Some of the drawings [in the show] are very related to the black and white drawings. I have made a black and white drawing like this [“Chrysanthemum”] before. I’ve also made an installation of a gigantic chrysanthemum. It was black and white with white polka dots and black paper – a giant thing! So that is a motif that recurs in my work. I am a gardener, so there are a lot of floral motifs that occur.

I also think that probably my accumulative instinct and my patterns, like the way I touch things over and over, is just really a physics idea: I am a product of deep patterns; I make patterns.

So, I think that answers your question. It’s sort of a long answer because there are a lot of different kinds of artwork here.

When you were a young child, were you drawing? And what was your imagery like? And how were you thinking of yourself in relation to that activity? How was your environment in relation to you doing that?

First of all, my mom was the kind of mom who could take ninety-nine-cent-a-yard, lime-colored burlap, and wallpaper the living room – and it looked fabulous! She was Martha Stewart before Martha Stewart. She was very creative, and my dad, who is here, builds things. So they both had that in them.

I started drawing pretty young, and I had two ways of drawing. I also started making installations very young. I lived in a rural area and I would go up in the woods and I would take pine cones, and empty beer bottles, and wine bottles and stuff, and I would make tables and I would set up these arrangements of things in the woods in a space.

And I drew from life. I really loved drawing from life, that’s my training. I would make drawings of pine trees, and the fields. Sometimes I would fake being sick to stay home to draw, which I don’t know if you knew that, dad . . . And then I also did this thing from very early, probably fourth grade, where I would make this dress shape and pretty much just festoon it with lace, just totally cover the thing with lace. There was no figure in it, it wasn’t like a princess; it was just a dress . . .

The other thing that I remember is when we would have to handwrite book reports in pen, and if I made a mistake I wouldn’t just draw a line through it, I would actually draw a really nice dark rectangle over the whole word.

Those tables and collections of items, you were definitely not yet aware of the art world?

No, not at all. It was like playing dollhouse, arranging things. But I was basically making a three dimensional collage, which I actually do a lot in my installations. It is very related.


The full audio of Bowlby’s talk was transcribed by Emilie Keim (full video available here). These excerpts were compiled and edited by Sabina Tichindeleanu.

Materials courtesy of Gallery Joe


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