Tug of the sea lures painter to his roots
The call to go down to the sea came early for Marcus Bowcott. But in the case of the Vancouver artist, the sea was the muddy estuary of the Fraser and the ships were barrel-chested tug boats.
Between studies at the Ontario College of Art and the Royal Academy in London in the 1970s and early 80s, Bowcott worked on tugs to pay his way. In the process, the dangerous toil of the millpond got into his bones and into his imagination.
This survey of his recent work – oil paintings on canvas and mylar – is Bowcott’s first major exhibition here since 1988. The lifelong fascination with the working life at the water’s edge is still evident, even though Bowcott, now an instructor at Emily Carr Institute and Capilano College, is long gone from the tugs.
Where his work in the early 1980s – during his training at the Royal Academy – was sparked by the reflections on the river’s surface, these poised and accomplished works examine the monolithic working boats that ply those waters.
Working up and down the boom-laced shoes of the Fraser, Bowcott became fascinated not just with the watery reflections around him, but with the rusting hulks of abandoned cars and broken remains of log booms that littered the riverbanks.
In these latest paintings, Bowcott explores the enigmatic shapes of ships out of water, improbably balanced in dry dock.
“I wanted to convey the size and gravity of the vessels I worked around,” Bowcott explains in an exhibition statement. “I wanted to relate their mass to the diminshed scale of the human body, and communicate the sense of physical vulnerability and awe I felt when working near them.
“I vividly recall climbing up a rickety swinging gangway of a massive ship and thinking to myself that the ship was like a modern mercantile equivalent of a Gothic cathedral.”
But where a Gothic cathedral was a public work that expressed the spirit of the community that raised it, Bowcott’s hulking shapes something darker and far less hopeful.
In Axe, for instance, a large oil-on-panel work that Bowcott completed last year, the emerald green hull of a tanker balances awkwardly on a stripped-down dry dock. The composition recalls the monoliths of Easter Island, monsters planted high above the sea, their eyes staring of into eternity. The sky glows opal behind, raising the emotional temperature of the view.
The subjects may be contemporary, but there is something ancient and unchanging about these images of ships on their drydock altars, or hanging motionless at anchor.
On canvas, Bowcott achieves textures that might be copied directly from the corroding hulls of real ships: rough, abraided surfaces, as nicked and scarred as old boiler plate. More interesting are the works on mylar, that smooth as skin, translucent polyester so beloved of architects.
These surfaces carry light up and through the pigments, further igniting Bowcott’s already luminous skies. The sheen and powdery smoothness of the mylar are so inviting, viewers have to remind themselves not to run admiring fingers along the surfaces.
In conversation invokes the influences of Claude Monet and Edward Hopper. And indeed there is a quality of light shimmering on Rouen cathedral in some of these paintings. the Hopper influence – a pared-back style of depiction and heightened counterpoints of light and shadow – are also evident, especially in Drydock Study [Axe], where the ship fidgets and glows in silhouette.