STEPHEN BOWERS 

CURRENT + RECENT EXHIBITIONS

REVIVE, REMIX, RESPOND

REVIVE, REMIX, RESPOND February 17–May 27, 2018The Frick Pittsburgh7227 Reynolds St., Pittsburgh, PA 412-371-0600 About the Exhibition In 2017, twenty contemporary artists were invited to respond to and produce new...

Stephen Bowers brings together in his painted ceramic vessels many of the traditions from the history of ceramics. In any one piece, one might find traces of many familiar styles and decorations.

Staffy Dogs 2013 LW

Pair of Staffordshire Dogs 2014, each 45 cms tall, underglaze, onglaze gold lustre

Initially from Sydney, Stephen Bowers became involved in ceramics in the late 1970s when looking for a challenge while teaching in a country town in South Australia. He did a traineeship in the Jam Factory’s ceramic workshop in Adelaide in 1982, and spent the next five years as an art teacher during the day and a potter at night. There was a strong influence in the early years from the Adelaide version of ‘Funk’ ceramics. In 1990, Bowers himself became head of the ceramics workshop at the Jam Factory, responsible for both training of staff and the workshop’s production output. At the same time he maintained his own practice of painting on vessels and also contributed to some large public art projects including a commemorative birdbath in a park and fittings for the ceiling in an inner city arcade.

His work is almost always functional in its form, and ranges from mugs, jugs, teapots, plates and platters that are mainly domestic in their purpose, to monumental urns and jardinieres intended for large public places. For the large items he usually collaborates with colleague Mark Heidenreich who is an expert thrower of large pots. The forms themselves, large or small, are crucial in the meaning of each work, but at the same time they are the basis for ordering his interest in the decoration of their surfaces. His drawing skills, and the way these are carried out through ceramic materials, are considerable, but the drawings are more than decoration and illustration. They are witty collages that betray thoughtful research and intelligent observation.

INTRODUCTION

Born in Katoomba, NSW, Australia in 1952, Stephen Bowers grew up in Sydney and now lives and works in Norwood, South Australia. A self-taught artist, he became involved in ceramics in the mid 1970s when he began producing strikingly decorated work.

Reflecting the influence of textiles, wallpapers, comic strips, natural history illustration and childhood memories his work brims with ideas and imagery that trace their origin to both historical and contemporary sources. Knowledge of ceramic decorative technique allows him to use these sources in his on-going interpretations of motifs such as cockatoos, kangaroos and willow patterns. His work is a sustained investigation into hand painted imagery and how it might be applied to the ceramic surface. Appreciation of this approach is a key to understanding how he develops and composes his imagery and achieves the complexity of resolution in his work.

S Bowers process shots of rosella plate

William Morris Camouflage plate: preparatory sketch and initial under-glaze painting 2014. photos by Terry Golding

It is not only skill at illustration that Bowers acquired over time; close observation of his often seemingly innocent decorations reveals subtexts of irony, commentary and social observation, inviting viewers to look beyond the bravura of the surface to discover a complex and layered world.
In addition to his work as an artist, Bowers has also contributed considerably to the careers of many within the visual arts, craft and design sector in Australia; from 1990 – 1999 he was Creative Director of JamFactory’s ceramics studio; from 2004 – 2010, he was Managing Director of the organisation. He has presented numerous exhibitions and lectures both in Australia and overseas.

TECHNIQUES
Inspired by the vivid colour, imagery and detail found within the traditions of ceramics (particularly Staffordshire wares) Bowers prefers under-glaze decoration and on-glaze lustre and enamel in a type of pottery known as ‘earthenware’.

S Bowers William-Morris-(camouflage-plates)-dinner-set 978pxwhite

William Morris camouflage plates 2010, underglaze, clear glaze, enamels, gold lustre

Layers of decoration are built up in stages, across many firings (some pieces being fired six times). Backgrounds and detailed brush work decoration are applied first, with treatments of gold or enamel applied last.
Works are covered with a gloss coat of clear earthenware glaze. This, like the glaze often found on Staffordshire pieces and other earthenware, can be expected, across time, to develop a ‘crazed’ appearance, where the surface layer of glaze exhibits a series of fine cracks. Continuously developing across the years, this is a natural characteristic of earthenware and is often looked for in antique pieces as indicators of their age.

BOTANICAL & ZOOLOGICAL ILLUSTRATION
Bowers is interested in records and imagery of Australian flora and fauna especially from the time of first contact and colonial periods. He often uses these images to explore the idea of Australia as ‘The Antipodes’, a kind of conjectural land, both ancient and new, strange and different, an upside-down, topsy-turvy southern counterweight to the mass of UK/Europe and the north. His interest in the birds and animals of bushland Australia means that many of his works also reflect on the on-going effect settlement has on the environment.

KANGAROOS
The kangaroo that frequently appears in his work is a reference to the copper plate engraving published in Hawkesworth’s edition of Cook’s Voyages, An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His Present Majesty for making discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, 1773. The first definite printed illustration of a kangaroo, it was engraved after a painting by pre eminent animal painter George Stubbs (1724 -1806) and is often referred to as Stubbs’s Kangaroo. Joseph Banks (1743- 1820), the naturalist on Captain Cook’s vessel the Endeavour, commissioned Stubbs to paint a portrait of the animal from a skin brought back to England. The finished work was exhibited with the title ‘The Kongouro [sic] from New Holland, 1770’ at the Society of Artists in London in 1773.

Stubbs meets Spode 2011, underglaze, clear glaze, 6 x 63 cm. Boldly crosshatched, the image of the copperplate kangaroo engraved from Stubb’s painting which appeared in Hawkesworth’s edition of Cook’s Voyages, An account of the voyages undertaken by the order of His Present Majesty for making discoveries in the Southern Hemisphere, 1773, asserts itself over a wash background depicting details of a numbered analytical chart of the engraved copper plate for Spode’s blue willow ‘Temple’ pattern.

PARROTS
Bowers’ parrots have various sources, including the Zoology of New Holland , 1794 by George Shaw (1751- 1815) with figures by James Sowerby (1757 -1822), the first book dedicated to Australian fauna (and the first to use the term ‘Australia’ to refer to this country), as well as more contemporary illustrators including Neville William Cayley (1886- 1952) author and illustrator of What bird is that ? 1950, and William T Cooper (1934- ) illustrator of many books including Australian Parrots, 3rd edition published in 2002 and Cockatoos: A Portfolio of All Species, 2001.

MOTIFS & PATTERNS
William Morris (1834 – 1896) one of Britain’s most influential designers, he is best known for his superb flat repeat patterns for fabrics, wallpaper and furnishings. Designing over 50 wallpapers for his company Morris & Co, he used plant forms in every one of his designs, finding inspiration from his gardens, country walks, and woodcuts prints from the 1500s. Bowers frequently employs patterns such as Compton (1896), Brer Rabbit (1882), Honey Suckle (1883) and Pink and Rose (1890) in his works.
Willow Pattern appearing in about 1780, attributed to Thomas Turner of Caughley, and engraved by Thomas Minton (1765- 1836), the standard Willow Pattern draws on imagery found on hand painted Chinese blue and white export ware which made their way to Britain and Europe during the 1500’s through to the 1700’s.

Early designs for the pattern show pagodas and gardens, often with pines and orange and willow trees, a bridge (frequently with figures crossing the bridge), a bay (or harbour) with a boat and remote temples and pagodas on distant islands and archipelagos.
From the 1780’s on, these ‘poetic’ elements were mixed and altered by the many potteries producing versions of the design, with later versions incorporating a pair of birds and becoming increasingly standardised. Suitably enough, the ‘willow legend’ of two star-crossed lovers is a further fictive evolution, retro-fitted to the design in the 1840s to broaden its appeal and boost sales.
At the height of Staffordshire wares in the 1830s, over 200 potteries produced Willow patterns. However with the introduction of the British Copyright Act in 1842, potters were discouraged from simply taking designs from each other. This led to the development of new designs ranging from lyrical floral patterns, to idyllic landscapes to sporting and industrial views.

S Bowers The-Complete-Angler-plate LW

The complete angler 2010, underglaze, clear glaze 65cms dia

ABOUT THE WORK: WALK THE PLANK

Walk The Plank 2013. Handmade wooden surfboard (paulownia timber), painted decoration, fiber-glass and resin. Board shaped by Peter Walker, painted by Stephen Bowers, Adelaide, South Australia. 7’7” high x 22″wide.

Inspired by classic blue willow pattern, Bowers creates a ‘dub’ (or pirate version) to decorate this handmade wooden surfboard created by master Australian wooden surfboard maker Peter Walker. In this work is the world of willow harbor, coastline, and floating islands re-imagined in another form to illustrate an unwritten folk-tale about pirates off the coast of Maine.

Looking within this (at first appearance) subtly changed landscape, layers strange alternative narrative unfold, reworking the cliché of willow pattern into a diverting and whimsical take, where the old blue willow morality tale is hijacked as a tableau theatre, a location for buccaneer daydreaming and imponderable fictions.

In this silhouetted and floating world, successive layers of images appear. Images from pirate lore and local North East USA vernacular culture replace the pagodas and temples of the oriental inspired classic. Storm tossed and beset by sea monsters, ghost images of strange treasure galleons and pirate ships drift in the shadow-filled background. Whether dancing a bizarre jig a-top a cannon or sporting a greasy pig-tail queue gazing out to sea, pirates abound.

Willow Pattern pagodas are replaced by Cape Cod real estate. Edward Hopper’s 1927 Lighthouse and buildings on Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth appear in the middle ground, while the Chinese bridge becomes the suspension bridge to Deer Island. Of the two iconic lovebirds, one mutates into a pirate’s mascot in the form of a bat. As well, a diminutive Statue of Liberty lighthouse beacon and classical facade (looking a bit like the MFA Boston) become a Museum of piratical Arrrt (admired by comic strip characters Krazy Kat and Ignatz).

In this surreal surf culture piece (even the title – Walk the Plank – plays at once on buccaneer executions and surfboard lore) the complex world of willow harbour is awash with new images and strange undercurrents. The classic cobalt dreamscape of archipelagos, islands and mainland become a map of poetic pirate fantasy. This work reconfigures blue willow pattern; allowing it to become something of a new folk tale, set within its borders, an illustration that draws audiences into the zone of action, into the world of pirate willow, inviting us to walk the plank, cross the bridge go out to the island and behind the scenes.

STEPHEN BOWERS

Stephen Bowers (b.1952, Sydney, lives and works in in Norwood, South Australia) is a self-taught artist working in ceramics- often focusing on strikingly decorative textiles, wallpapers, comic strips, natural history illustration found within the imagery of his childhood in the mid-1970’s. Close observation of his often seemingly innocent decorations of cockatoos, kangaroos, and willow patterns, reveals subtexts of irony, commentary, and social observation, inviting viewers to look beyond the bravura of the surface to discover a complex and layered world.

Bowers has participated in numerous international exhibitions within Australia and overseas, including the UK, Norway, Italy, Denmark and China and here in the states. His work is included in numerous permanent collections, including the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA), Brooklyn Museum of Art, (NY, NY), National Museum of Art Architecture and Design, (Oslo, Norway), Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art, (LA, CA), Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, (Launceston, Tasmania)  Museum of International Ceramic Art, (Denmark), Australian National Gallery, (Canberra, Australia), Powerhouse Museum, (Sydney, Australia) National Museum of History, (Taipei Taiwan), Parliament House, (Canberra Australia), among many others.

From 2004 to 2010 he directed the International Craft Initiative (ICI) on behalf of the Australia Council, developing survey presentations of contemporary Australian craft for exhibition in Chicago, Munich and London.  In 2015 Stephen undertook a Churchill Fellowship to research blue and white ceramic collections in the USA, the UK, Denmark and the Netherlands. In January this year he exhibited with Ferrin Contemporary at the 2018 New York Ceramics and Glass Fair and his work was recently on show at The Frick Pittsburgh. In August/September this year he will exhibit at the Robin Gibson Gallery in Sydney and the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh.

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