Stephen Bowers: Beyond Bravura

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A book that seems ‘just right’ does not come along that often. This is one. A good size at 28 x 24cm, hard cover and 160 pages, abundantly illustrated, high production values and two adroit, appropriate and useful essays. It is a fitting rounding-out for a thirty-five year career that is far from any conclusion. It accompanies a current, nine-month exhibition of Bowers’ work at the National Museum of Art in Oslo, Norway to be followed by an Australia-wide tour that will run until mid-2015.

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Damon Moon’s lucid introduction to Bowers’ life and its inter-relationship with developments in his practice ably underscores the following essay by John Neylon. Moon traces a chronology around early travel and study leading to a unique working history that embraced teaching, arts mentorships, administration and funding programmes through to traineeship then workshop head and finally Managing Director at the Jam Factory, developing and leading  and instigating collaborative relationships with a number of artists that lasted many years. Bowers imported and introduced artists who contributed to the range of local, national and international residencies, visits and exchanges that were possible along with partnerships with places like Lill Street Arts Centre in Chicago. There was an International Cultural Initiative that created opportunities for Australian Craft and Design in the international market   and participation for Australia with Collect (UK), Talente (Germany) and SOFA (USA). His contribution, particularly to South Australian but also to all-Australian craft,  has clearly been generous and significant. This valuable input has been balanced by his, at least equally considerable, personal career as an artist.

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Surface Tension: the ceramic art of Stephen Bowers by John Neylon analyses Bowers’ many sources and methods. Underlining these accomplishments is his prodigiously gifted draftsman’s hand supported by a long-term interest, study and mastering of innumerable methods of ceramic decoration. Employing both these talents, Bowers is engaged with identity politics via his work with clay. He could have followed several paths but it was ceramics where Bowers finally applied his aptitudes. He did this at a time when surface decoration was mostly derived from glaze effects and often relied upon gifts from the firing process or else utilised quasi-oriental, loose brushwork. It was a bold embarkation that has gathered complexity as he both celebrates and re-invigorates decorative design traditions derived from different eras and cultures. His range covers Greco-Roman, Islamic and Italian Renaissance,  Victorian Arts and Crafts and William Morris, marbling textile patterns and botanical studies, blue and white and willow pattern through to comic strips and Australiana. It seems he can mimic or parody, or adapt and reinvent almost any style.

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While he has worked in the round with production and large scale vessels – the latter most notably with potter Mark Heidenreich as thrower – Bowers has used the tondo or large-scale plate and platter to greatest effect and it is these vehicles, which carry some of his most spectacular compositions. Neylon’s essay effectively analyses the various decorative strategies Bowers uses and this is where the abundant illustrations become most valuable. The splendid close-ups amplify these tropes and devices and it’s possible to see both evolution of design techniques and how he transitions nature into pattern and pattern into nature. It is the technical richness and the uncompromising nature of the medium and lack of pretentiousness that Bowers claims is a large part of the attraction for him despite the associated traditions that provide parameters. Bowers sees himself as reaffirming of the role and presence of painting within ceramic tradition. There are few who take this to the same level as Bowers – perhaps the surrealist Sergei Isupov (Russia) or Kurt Weiser (USA) with his china painted eroticism in nature or possibly Grayson Perry (UK) and his darker views of human psyche. But none has Bowers’ illustrative chops in anything like the same way, his delight in and use of cliché and quirky juxtapositions or the variety of historical styles and techniques at his fingertips. Now that he has ceased also taking a ‘day job’ in addition to his art practice so that he can concentrate on the personal, we can expect to see even more to dazzle us from this highly energetic Aussie.

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The book is rounded out with a gallery of illustrations – headed by one of his recurrent motifs, a Zen monk hefting a transistor radio – and tailed by CV notes. I just don’t believe he was born in 1925 and know the good folk of Titirangi would prefer to see it spelt that way but feel sure the reprint that, unless the print run was many tens of thousands, will surely be required, will correct these minor details.

It’s a book that should be in every ceramic library.

Publishers are Wakefield Press and the ISBN is 978-1-74305-232-7

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