Across Roblin Lake, two shores away,
they are sheathing the church spire
with new metal. Someone hangs in the sky
over there from a piece of rope,
hammering and fitting God’s belly-scratcher
These lines from the poet Al Purdy’s Wilderness Gothic came back to Vancouver artist Marcus Bowcott while he was working on paintings for shows earlier this year. Purdy’s muscular swaggering lines and Bowcott’s images of massive seagoing freighters, dominating their surroundings like malevolent spirits, tap a similar ethos. The hammer-weilding work of industry informs Purdy’s poetry as much as it does the bulging curves of Bowcott’s hulking ships. Perhaps because of years on coastal tugboats, Bowcott finds inspiration in the ocean, especially the nexus between industry and nature. But while the ocean has, traditionally, been viewed as overpowering, in his paintings it is at the mercy of manmade mechanical juggernauts.
In Bowcott’s painting Wilderness Gothic, for instance, a drydocked freighter, its swollen belly silhouetted against a fiery sky, seems to strain at the scaffolding that pins it to earth. “These vessels are mechanistic, unnatural in a way, a response to natures threat,” says Bowcott. He sees the “technical icons” in his paintings akin to the cathedrals that dominated medieval towns. However, the cathedrals were built with community support; these megalithic vessels are the work of faceless industrial designers. Desite these anti-nature qualities, Bowcott’s images do evoke the natural world. It’s not too far-fetched to imagine the sublime in one of these pitted, pocked and gritty forms. In Waves/Starboard Stern Quarter, the leviathan hull of a ship rears up like a harpooned whale.
Other works – Interval(negative & positive), for one – suggests islands, unknown territory that might, or might not, offer refuge. The expanse of sea and sky between the two ships brings to mind the mind the silences in a Thelonius Monk composition, enigmatic but portentous. Unfashionable as it may be in Vancouver, where artistic discourse is dominated by photo-conceptualists, Bowcott wants his paintings to leave the viewer moved. For him, art’s emotional and spiritual impact is important. “A visceral physical reaction is one of my primary objectives.”
His refusal to consider only the intellectual aspects of art finds support in two West Coast predecessors, Jack Shadbolt and Emily Carr. But unlike the vision of these confirmed romantics, Bowcott’s vision is coloured by the knowledge that British Columbia’s primeval forests, and the people they sheltered before European contact, have been compromised. In place of Carr’s gigantic trees, Bowcott gives us manmade behemoths of iron and steel. Some ride at anchor, empty, waiting. Others lie beached, thrust out of their element – Gulliver suffering the lilliputian antics of an invisible horde of welders, painters and barnacle scrapers.