Marcus Bowcott’s experience working on the Fraser River flavours his marine art Artist’s work blends beauty of industry, nature
Miles from the sea, freighters ride gently at anchor across from the Richmond Centre Mall, but in place of Vanouver harbour’s sharp salt air and stinking diesel fumes, the smells of oil paint fills the air.
The freighters, huge hulking wrecks seemingly more at home at Roberts Bank or moored in English Bay, are the subject of a new series of oil paintings by North Vancouver artist Marcus Bowcott.
“I used to work there,” he says as we cross the Arthur Laing Bridge on an prematurely dark, rainy Saturday afternoon, en route to his show at the Richmond Art Gallery. Bowcott’s outstretched arm indicates the view throught the foggy passenger window. Down river, sodiium-lit sawdust piles, log booms and barges disappear into the early dusk. The half-lit scene suggests the moody ambiance of one of his paintings. When I make the comparison, he laughs “I want them to be about my direct experience. Ask any painter or film-maker. Your strongest work comes from it. It’s heartfelt. You believe it.”
Bowcott’s work is a melancholy industrial sublimity equally indebted to the luminescent colours and ever-changing forms of J.M.W.Turner’s great 19th-century seascapes, and to years of intimate aquaintance with parts of industrial Vancouver that most people never see.
Bowcott worked for years on local tugs and tow boats where he also found time to paint. He earned a master’s degree from London’s Royal College of Art by alternating years of work in the Vancouver harbour on the Fraser River with years of art study overseas.
Yet Bowcott emphatically refuses to be typed as just a marine painter. “I don’t want people to think, “Oh, Marcus just paints boats because he used to work out on the water,” ” he says. “I want the pictures to stand for something larger.”
At heart, Bowcott is a realist. His images of massive, rusting hulls and skeletal dry-dock scaffolds effortlessly evoke memories of Seabus trips to the North Shore or weekend sailing jaunts in English Bay. Yet his paintings also possess a metaphorical dimension, drawing suggestive parallels between contemporary society’s celebration of technology and earlier societies’ religious celebrations.
“I remember climbing up the gangway of a freighter in English Bay and thinking to myself that is was like a large, mercantile equivalent of a Gothic cathedral,” he says. “They’re huge. They take your breath away, just their sheer physical scale. Yet they’re things that came out of the human mind. We made them; we invented them.”
In the hands of a less talented artist, Bowcott’s ponderous, scabby-hulled freighters and stormy, light-swept skies could be easily reduced to the now-familiar theme of industry’s corruption of unblemished nature. Thankfully, Bowcott’s pictures are more enigmatic, acknowledging the natural world’s beauty and industry’s subsequent transformation of that world, which possess a disturbing beauty of their own.
“Artists like Toni Onley or Gordon Smith have done a pretty good job of rendering the almost recreational approach to nature,” says Bowcott. “They’ve helped us assimilate that part of nature. I believe we only understand nature through art. But I feel that there’s a glaring omission in their work, and that’s the human being who’s in there, usually plundering the joint.
“You know Toni Onley doing his images of Arctic icebergs? – I’ve worked up there on the oil rigs. They’re why everyone is up there. Being around those rigs is fascinating, it’s where the action is.
“The icebergs and their beautiful colours, those beautiful greys and browns and blues, are sort of a backdrop. I’ve always wanted to bring the two together.”
Often, Bowcott’s allegorical conjunctions of nature and industry are leavened by dry wit. For example, his contribution to 1993’s Artropolis exhibiton was a proposal to build a 100-foot-high sundial out of scrap cars, and to install it in the middle of Lost Lagoon, so that North Shore drivers stuck in stalled causeway traffic could contemplate the pasing of their own lives. A small scale model and drawings were displayed at Artropolis, while Bowcott sent a more detailed proposal to the BC Ministry of Transportation and Highways, which, unsurprisingly, turned the project down.
In Bowcott’s Richmond show, a series of oil-on-mylar paintings extends his crushed car sundial’s absurdist humour. Works like Ark and Blue Ark depict huge listing dry-docked freighters, held precariously in place by thin scaffolds and trellises. These paintings resemble an imaginative cross between the Italian surrealism of Giorgio de Chirico and a Seaspan International promotional brochure.
Other, larger paintings explore relationships between nature and industry with a gentler, more melancholy eye. In Lotos Eaters, easily the best painting in the Richmond show, a kayaker floats at rest between two huge freighters. The paintings title refers to a poem by the 19th-century poet Alfred Tennyson, and suggests that the kayaker’s contemplative aestheticization of nature blinds him to the equally important industrial realities all around him.
“It’s been satisfying for me to see the evolution of my work over the last three years,” says Bowcott of the painting process that’s led him to successful pieces like Blue Ark and Lotos Eaters. He began as a representational painter, but then saw that he could employ other ways to get themes across throught the paint.”
Bowcott’s simultaneous shows in Richmond and at the Seymour Art Gallery in North Vancouver continue through mid-February.
Vancouver Courier readers interested in examining Bowcott’s industrial subjects up close may want to inquire about an Richmond Art Gallery tour of the Roberts Bank supertanker port.