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John Bowman Interview
By Andy Sturdevant

Andy Sturdevant and John Bowman in front of Crossings

Andy Sturdevant: You’re based in New York and Pennsylvania, but there have been a few locally specific Twin Cities landscapes that have turned up in your work over the years. Where did those come from?

John Bowman: I was showing with Holly Solomon in New York at that time, so Jon got in touch with her and requested me for a show. He was interested in my work. I guess he saw some of it at her gallery – this is before the internet, so I’m not quite sure. My memory is a little foggy on these connections before the internet, or how we did anything at all.

I went out to Minnesota with some work, and Jon’s place was in Minneapolis at the time, in (one) of those those big industrial buildings down in the Warehouse District. I’d never been to the Twin Cities before, so it was an exciting thing. You love to travel with your work. Jon was a generous host – he picked me up in a very cool car. I think it was a Citroën. I was very impressed by that.

I visited some of the sights around town – I’ve always followed the sports teams. I was a Vikings fan when I was a kid. Jon took me around to the Mall of America, and the Walker Art Center. 

AS: [laughs] The two great poles of local culture.

JB: Yeah, Minneapolis-St. Paul has a pretty good place in my imagination. I’ve been working on some different cityscapes, and I’ve always liked your skyline. First of all, you’ve got two of them, which is kind of unusual. They also line up so that that each building has a distinctive profile, with a gap in between. The New York skyline becomes such a jungle, and buildings are always being replaced by new buildings, so the skyline is always overlapping – you can’t distinguish between building profiles, whereas in Minneapolis you really can. You can pick up specific landmarks. To me, these big buildings are like mountain ranges. You don’t have mountains there, so I think of these as your mountains.

Promenade 12×24

AS: Yeah, there is a geological quality to a skyline. It’s layered over time. The skylines are compact enough that you can see that geologic layers – you’ve got the taller glass bank buildings on top, then a middle section of midcentury buildings, then below that are the brick and old industrial parts of the cityscape. 

JB: Part of this has to do with something I’ve been reading in the work of Paul Virilio. He writes that all of this technology, and especially the speed of contemporary life, is erasing both space and sense of place. That in a way, we are starting to live in a simultaneity of time and space, where it’s not really clear where “here” and “now” is. So to me, some of the images are Minneapolis-St. Paul in a blender with other places. A collage of everything. 

Part of that has to do with how we experience the world with digital tools like Photoshop, where we can easily sample, and mash up bits and piece of all sorts of things to create new kinds of images and realities. I think that’s been part of all our experiences in the past fifteen years, especially if you work with imaging programs, which as an artist and educator I do. I think a lot of that layering is almost like in Photoshop. 

So in some paintings, it’s straightforward – there’s a foreground, middle ground and background. But then in others, I start to think of – well, for example, I was fascinated by your skyways. All of this glass with that hostile environment outside, and you guys are in the inside, but there are all these reflections on the glass. And so I was remembering the reflections I saw in all the cities and landscapes and places I’ve been, and the disorienting effects of that. I started to do some layering where you don’t know where the foreground and background is. Mostly my confusion, I suppose.

AS: The way we encounter images in the last ten years has changed. With things like Photoshop, but also with the Internet. Now of course you punch any subject into Google Image Search, and you get pages and pages of all kinds of images that aren’t organized in terms of how old they are, where they come from, if they’re by professionals or amateurs – it’s just a completely riotous experience of imagery. You can see where that might affect the creation of some of these landscapes.

JB: It’s kaleidoscopic and hallucinogenic. We have this unlimited choice – that’s the great thing, it’s all at our fingertips. I used to have filing cabinets with folders and folders full of material. A motor pool, a forestry section, all in files. I thought of it as my image brain bank somehow. I still have some of that, but it’s sitting there in an old archive, turning into dust, because I use a computer, too – it just has more choices.

I also do oil paintings that are more traditional – urban landscapes in the Mediterranean, Albania,Egypt and Turkey, places where I’ve been traveling recently. But I also have been starting to work on some of these images – the hot moose, for example. They deal tangentially with our environmental situation. I don’t know how warm it was up there in Minneapolis this winter, but it certainly was here. I think we’re going to have to deal with these sorts of changes, and the roaming moose will have to find some air conditioning.

Flash 1 16×20

AS: That makes me think of another thing – the presence, or the absence of human figures. They’re in there, and there’s always evidence of humans in the landscapes – there’s always clearly some sense that humans have been here building something. The figures are even obscured in some. It’s not that humans don’t show up at all, but when they do, they seem to be moving Nosferatu-like through the shadows. (laughs) They’re never really in the foreground. It’s this interesting way of expressing the human environment without showing humans as central to it. 

JB: I do think of them as being central, since they’re the prime movers. We made it all happen. I guess I want to keep it away from specificity of things where you could read a socioeconomic or social class position into the figures. I was thinking of people in more of a general sense – you can see a difference in ages and genders at times if you look closely, but I try to make that background instead of foreground. I’m trying to get away from something that’s tied to the specific identity of the individual, and explore what we do in concert. Society is a thing we do together. We’re all complicit. As much as we might try to get absolution for ourselves, or find some way to lessen our guilt, we’re all complicit. 

AS: That does contribute to that lack of specificity – the idea that these scenes are based in part on actual, physical locations you’ve seen, but there’s also a broadness that doesn’t indicate any geographic area or point in time. 

I first encountered your work at the 331 – Crossings, which hangs there, and has a kind of cult following around town. One of things people love about that piece in particular, and much of your work, is that it’s not clearly tied to a specific place. It seems open enough that you can insert yourself into that landscape. You can read into it whatever ideas you bring to it. You as the artist are not really didactic about saying, for example, “This is the environmentally ravaged landscape of this specific part of the country.” It’s a broader idea about the world at large, and the way human and the natural and built environment interact with one another.

JB: Well, I don’t want to be that specific or didactic. I don’t have the answers about things. I’m mostly bewildered. The more I read, the more I know, the more bewildered I get. I’m just sharing my confusion.  

I might suggest something about the environment, or something going on in a war zone. I was in Egypt a few years back, just before the revolution. I’d go to Syria, if I could. I have this kind of ambivalence about things – I don’t want the world to go to hell, but it’s interesting all these changes that are going on. I don’t think I want my work to illustratea particular point of view. It’s kind of like setting a certain scene that the viewer can enter, and bring their own perceptions and consciousness to it, so they can explore in there a little bit. They don’t just come in, say, oh, OK, I get what the message is, and then leave.

AS: Exactly. And the fact that the physical human figures are absent or obscured makes it inviting for people to enter the work, and imagine themselves in that landscape in the place of absent figures. Viewers can ask, how would I interact with this landscape?

JB: The silhouetted figures serve as blank screens upon which viewers can project themselves, or another, alternate identity. People and a society – it’s a mystery. It is confounding to me. I’m always in wonder at how people behave, and what societies do. I think that’s one of the things that’s pushing the work – dealing with the mysterious ways people behave. The things we get up to.

Reading history was the beginning of creating images when I was young. My first paintings and drawings were trying to portray scenes that were in history books. Scenes from Greek mythology, the history of Rome, the same place where many people start – the Middle Ages. I was always trying to picture different parts of those stories. That was the genesis of all of my work. In some ways, I’m still a history painter, a contemporary history painter.

AS: I think in all of your paintings – even the ones that portray scenes that should be somewhat tranquil, like a landscape with a moose or wolf – even those have an underlying sense of tension in them. I don’t know if it’s a tension that comes out in the muted colors, or in the imagery – but a lot of the scenes have almost a sense of foreboding. You feel like you’re looking at just on the edge of blowing up – not literally blowing up, maybe, but on the edge of seeing some massive type of upheaval, but it hasn’t happened quite yet. 

JB: The paintings that have always interested me have been the things that – well, I’ve always thought of image-making like a CAT scan. You get one slice of a scanned object. Or like a movie, where you get a single frame of the film. There’s a cinematic aspect to it. It suggests something is about to occur. Or something has just happened. It’s that CAT scan of time, of finding that moment, that suggests something is about to happen. You picture something that’s not in the picture, but is going to be.

AS: Exactly. Or something that was in the picture. I’ve talked to a lot of people about Crossings, and so many think it’s a post-apocalyptic scene. Like a neutron bomb had gone off, and this is the aftermath. The office towers still in the distance, but the elk and moose are the only living things left on the landscape.

JB: Well, there is some thought this neutron bomb has already happened, and that’s just what the ongoing process of modernization is. We’re living in this neutron bomb explosion, and eventually, all of us will be gone. It’s just we haven’t gotten to the end of it yet. We’re in the process of it.

AS: Like a slow-acting neutron bomb. That’s simultaneously a very exciting and very terrifying idea.

JB: I like being scared, I guess. I’m scared all the time. Sometimes I think that just living in this world, where everything’s changing all the time – the place I lived in New York was in Tribeca, about eight blocks from the World Trade Center, and I remember experiencing the first bomb that went off in 1993. If you watch the news in modern life, to some degree you’re bracing for the next shock. Of course I don’t want to live in fear, so my way of dealing with that is an old one – whistling past the graveyard. Make fun of the devil, ride it on out. Forget it. Let’s have a drink. And then it comes back the next day.

AS: Do you watch a lot of horror movies?

JB: I don’t. I did when I was a kid, I guess – I watched all the Frankenstein and Wolfman movies. Not so much into the gory slasher sort of thing. I suppose I like suspense, and film noir – all the mysteriousness and the sense of impending doom. That might have something to do with the lighting. The low budget sort of film noir where you could take a clip light and some venetian blinds and a certain camera angle, and create a surreal scene. The use of really low-budget tricks to create interesting effects. I’ve allays admired that, and tried to do in my own work. There is a great scene in Fellini’s Casanova, where he employs moving black plastic to evoke roiling water under an artificial moon. It is a mesmerizing effect.

AS: I was thinking specifically of those atmospheric, low-budget ’60s and ’70s-era horror movies, like The Omega Man, Dawn of The Dead, John Carpenter’s movies – very suspenseful, and they take place against these bleak landscapes, a lot like some of your artwork, in terms of tone and in terms of technique…

JB: Well, I did see all of those. (laughs) I suppose I’m blocking it out, but they did have an incredible effect on me obviously. I guess I’m trying to forget about that. 

AS: I’m looking forward to the work being shown in Jon’s establishments. One of Jon’s guiding philosophies, as far being a saloonkeeper, is that he doesn’t have TVs in any of his bars. He has paintings instead of televisions. The way people relate to paintings in a bar or restaurant is a really interesting type of interaction. It’s not the type you get in a standard white wall gallery, or even in a domestic setting. But when you’re in a public space that’s really activated by a lot of people, all of whom are there for a lot of different reasons, the interaction with the work changes.

JB: More and more, people are trying to get artwork outside of that institutional framework, whether that’s a gallery or museum, so that this work can have a different type of existence, and people can engage with it peripherally – or sequentially, or they can see it one evening, and feel a certain way about it, be away a few weeks, change their mind because they’ve lived a bit more, and see it a third time and get a different reaction from it. Sort of like when you read a novel at one point, and then you might re-read it later in life, and get a completely different take on it. 

The work here will be in a place that’s not just a gallery, and where people come armed with a certain type of critical approach, and where they spend a certain amount of time in front of the work, and the gallerist walks over – or not – or they run into another person, and they lock into a type of art-speak, or put on this gallery persona. 

But when you’re in a place where you’re eating and drinking and having good time, or maybe fighting with your boyfriend or girlfriend – whatever you’re doing, whatever’s going on, there’s this work there that you’re maybe not directly regarding – but there it is. And it’s a space you can go into with your full regard, or with just a notion, or just a glimpse. And you carry that with you, and then see it again – seeing a piece over time in that kind of a space where people do different things. It makes fora different type of experience.

AS: That sense of revisiting something over time makes me think of landscapes you have dreams about, and you come back to those landscapes over the course of years. Or I do, anyway. I spend eight hours a night revisiting buildings and landscapes I’ve been in. Do you have that experience?

JB: Yes – I must confess, a lot of this work does come out of mydreams. And of course, when I’m moving through different places I’ve been, part of the city is New York, part is Prague, part of it is a Minneapolis skyway, and part is LA, and they all blend together seamlessly, and I don’t even question it – like, sure, you can go from Times Square to Loring Park to the Charles Bridge, and they all fit together somehow. That’s part of the construction of these works.

AS: That really comes across. It’s that sense of portraying a landscape that seems familiar at first, but is made up of so many different elements that it comes back around to seeming unfamiliar. There is a dreamlike quality to the architecture in the work. 

JB: I’m fascinated by architecture. Buildings are these kinds of mountains that we build, that we use to define a sense of place. We know where we are – we use them as landmarks. You get out your car or the subway, and you know where you are by these presences in the landscape, and you use them for the purpose of finding your way. But they’re also the handwriting of power on the landscape. They’re indices of time and history — you can invoke the whole industrial and economic history of the Midwest by looking at the mills and the old industrial buildings along the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis. 

We see them and we know them, but they’re sort of like a Potemkin village. Unless you live or work in one, they’re silhouettes that we use for our own purposes. We have this ambivalence about them. In an old Irish proverb, an American is walking through the landscape, and sees a massive estate up on a hill. He says to himself, “Someday I’m going to live in that house.” And the Irishman walks by, sees the same estate, and says “Someday I’m to burn that place to the ground.” 

I used to work in construction in New York. A group of artists had a construction company. We built lofts and bars. But I never went to school for architecture. I guess I’m a frustrated architect. Apart from building, I’m also interested in how buildings can be destroyed. There’s a great writer named Keller Easterling. She’s written a number of books, one of which is about the space in between buildings. Another of her books is about subtraction – tearing buildings down, and how important it is to get rid of architecture, to make room for more architecture, or make room for people to do new kinds of things. She writes, “Unbuilding is the other half of building. Buildings, treated as currency, rapidly inflate and deflate in volatile financial markets. Cities expand and shrink. Whether through the violence of planning utopias or war, they are also targets of urbicide…Often treated as failure or loss, subtraction when accepted as part of an exchange can be growth.” It’s kind of like the reverse of architectural ambition. 

AS: By being a painter, you can have it both ways – you can build, but you can also omit, or blot out, you can destroy and then build again, and all that can be happening at the same time. You’re like Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs in the same person. You build and you preserve and you destroy all at once.

(laughs) That’s what I’ve been doing. Like the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the Landmarks Commission colliding.