Marcus Bowcott at the Bau-Xi Gallery
Anyone who has ever harbour-paddled in a small boat will recall the sense of vulnerability experienced when looking up at the enormous hulk of an ocean-going freighter. These behemoths of iron and steel are the equivalent of sea-borne skyscrapers; man-made structures that imply power and endurance.
Vancouver artist Marcus Bowcott paints ships out of the water, beached and abandoned, in dry-dock or riding high as they wait to be reloaded. He envisions them, he says, in somewhat the same way as Gothic cathedrals once were perceived as symbols of an emerging medieval consciousness. For Bowcott, in his most recent show entitled Wedge, the freighter represents a powerful metaphor for the massiveness and complexity of today’s mercantile culture.
A knowledge of ships comes naturally to Bowcott. To earn tuition to attend the Vancouver School of Art, the Ontario College of Art, and the Royal College of Art, London, he laboured each summer as a longshoreman on Vancouver’s docks, or worked on tugboats on the Fraser River. Although he did not paint seascapes at that time, his first-hand experience with pocked, rusting hulls and their ponderous beauty left an indelible impression. Where most us see ships in the distance in the broad context of a maritime environment, Bowcott’s familiarity allows him to move in closer, to present their swollen forms as visceral, physical objects.
In a 1998 exhibition, The Enigma of Vessels , shown at the Vancouver Martime Museum, the essayist Sylvia Grace Borda wrote that “contrasts and ambiguities are part of a visual vocabulary from which Bowcott draws his strength … Scale and perspective are maintained in all the paintings, however the work’s surreal images of boats thrust up against their landscape in mid-air demands suspension of our beliefs about reality and perception. It is this process that leads viewer’s into a subliminal tug-of-war of acceptance and questioning the nature of truth and the freighter’s meaning.” Bowcott further pushes the viewers sense of things “out of their element” by sometimes painting the looming leviathans on thin mylar – negating notions of weightiness of profundity – and by glazing his paintings in shades on ochre and umber, mimicking techniques used by 19th century marine artists.