The Exploration of Freedom: a Photographic Study of Contemporary Artist, Frank Bowling

Above, Left to Right: All Frank Bowling: Beggar in The Window. (1962) Who’s afraid of Barney Newman? (1968) Kaieteur (1968)

The other week I headed over to the Standpoint Gallery to listen to the 79 year old Guyanese artist, Frank Bowling, give an intimate talk about his latest London exhibition, entitled Grit to Gold: Collaging the Abstract.

I have decided to focus this photography blog on how the stylistically varied work of Frank Bowling marks both his physical and artistic journey. I also want to examine how his painting serves as a commentary on the marginalised lives of Black Artists during the 1950s and 1960s, with his earthy toned figurative paintings presenting images of violence and despair in the country where he was born. His later abstract works reflect his experiences in London and New York as he searched for new opportunities and methods, starting to allow paint to obtain a life of its own. This is illustrated very well in his Poured Paintings exhibition at the Tate Britain, a show I would also thoroughly recommend.

Bowling’s earlier, figurative works focus on the tragic aspect of human behaviour that he was exposed to during his upbringing before moving to the Western World in 1953. Paintings of beggars (see above) were used to personify poverty and weakness, demonstrating the instability of Guyanese culture. Bowling refuses to spare any detail of this sense of suffering: his brushstrokes are rigid, his colour palette is limited and, as the artist put it himself, he has chosen to ‘impair the traditional soothing’ that we expect from a painting, as we feel guilt for the man that begs at the window. Bowling is not afraid to separate the figure from the onlooker by using the window as a device to hinder our access, confronting the obvious division between black and white artists in the ’50s and ’60s. His painting is reminiscent of western artists such as Turner and Rembrandt, whom the Bowling admires, suggesting his desire for universality between different cultures.

The subject matter of beggars served as a common stereotype for the category of ‘Black Art’ alongside other subjects, such as landscape and childbirth. But now, in retrospect, we are able to see the Bowling’s battle with the ‘sweeping generalisations about cultural distinctiveness’ as he promoted the idea that there is no such thing as ‘Black Art’.

On moving to New York, Bowling grew increasingly more aware of the cultural limitations of his art: the post-colonial approach focusing on concepts of exile, migration and displacement gave the artist little flexibility in the subject matter of his paintings.

Scared to transfer entirely from figurative art to abstraction, he felt the need to incorporate fragments of his ethnicity into his series of Map Paintings, claiming he ‘didn’t feel brave enough to go straight into abstraction’; the implication here was that his integration into mainstream art was hindered by racial prejudice.

But finally, Bowling managed to shift to complete abstraction, where his art was no longer defined by his race or ethnicity and visual arts could be separated from other social concerns. For example in his Poured Paintings (see above) the subject matter becomes less of a concern to the artist, demonstrating his new confidence and status, rising above the need to incorporate iconography into his work. This process-driven approach breaks away from the conventional 20th century demand for logic and subject matter. He works without an easel, and pours the paint on a tilted board, ‘wet on wet’ giving it its own liberty to create forms independently, each colour falling and blending as it reaches the bottom of the picture plane.

Below, I have tried to replicate this idea of experimentation and portrayal of freedom photographically, setting a long shutter speed whilst moving the camera over coloured lights. We see there is no boundary between the piece and the observer, like we have experienced previously in Bowling’s earlier works. This is meant to suggest how the modern world allows for the participation of all cultures, inviting us to appreciate the work for what it is; provoking a sense of anticipated excitement for the future of art, as it aims to encapsulate the spirit of modernism – ‘Art for Art’s sake’, if you like.


Above: Lights 1, Marie Naffah

Above: Lights 2, Marie Naffah

Above: Lights 3, Marie Naffah

I must lastly mention that Bowling has finally sold one of his paintings for $275,000 after years of working as an abstract artist. Although the Guyanese artist proves very successful, I couldn’t help but think as I sat in a room of about 25 people listening to him speak, why is it that we grant his contemporaries so much recognition, for instance, Hockney- who arguably produces works of the same artistic merit? Is it acceptable that there is still an underlying struggle that takes place for a black artist in western society?

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