Painting the edge

Mark Bowles at Elliot Fouts Gallery

Mark Bowles, “Approaching Storm.”

Mark Bowles, “Approaching Storm.”

There are consistent painters and there are inconsistent painters. The consistent ones are enjoyable because you always know what to expect. They will usually stay within the same style, the colors don’t vary much and subjects stay similar. Whenever a consistent painter surprises, it tends to be because the quality is either significantly better or worse than what they normally bring to the viewer.

The inconsistent painter is troubling by definition—you never know what the work will be like. If you are a gallery director or a follower of a certain person’s art, it can be a roller-coaster ride of failed or exceeded expectations, always full of surprises.

A hard-working, consistent painter usually progresses, and you can see each painting increase in creative strength. That’s a great thing to follow, especially as an artist matures. Conversely, an inconsistent painter’s strength can come from his or her ability to evade the more consistent artist’s penchant for calculating. Through excessive experimentation and a little luck thrown on top of skill level, he or she is able to achieve, occasionally, a few pieces that contain an inexplicable magic that is hard to pinpoint. And that is what tends to make people fall in love with paintings.

“New Work” by Mark Bowles at the Elliott Fouts Gallery in Granite Bay is a show that’s a perfect example of the latter type. According to Fouts, the pieces in the show are the only ones like it that he’s ever seen. Every time Bowles creates work for a show, he surprises Fouts with the difference alone.

At face value, what I noticed were several large paintings—some abstract, some representational, some somewhere in between. And that’s simplifying. The abstract paintings are even inconsistent within themselves. Two have the same color and feel—“Break of Dawn” and “Desert Patterns”—but others don’t look like the same painter touched them at all. The representational pieces play the same way. However, what throws all of this inconsistency out of whack is that all of these paintings are based on a single theme—landscape.

It’s easy to see the strong influence of the mid-20th-century Bay Area master of the inconsistent, Richard Diebenkorn, in Bowles’ work. Angles, brushstrokes and the blatant disregard for linear perspective in Bowles’ landscapes are very reminiscent of Diebenkorn’s work. And the influence follows, since Bowles graduated from the California College of Arts and Crafts, where Diebenkorn’s impact is still strongly felt.

Like Diebenkorn, Bowles’ best images are paintings that are too abstract to be representational, yet too representational to be entirely abstract. They ride the edge of each. “Rolling Lands” is predominantly a close-up of a field of grass, but a few landscape clues, dwarfed in the background, are the only things telling us this—otherwise, it’s a yellowish abstract composition. “Haystacks in a Field” is similar. This mostly fair abstract painting is transformed into an image that draws your attention in, with only a few dabs of paint to tell us what the subject is. Like many great inconsistent painters, Bowles realizes that in order to obtain that quintessential magic that makes a painting great, one must paint around it, not always creating great work, in order to get a couple of pieces that shine.