Shining through

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The G.R. N’Namdi Gallery is awash in color these days: resplendent yellows, dazzling golds, sulfurous reds, pulsing pinks, ripe oranges, softly radiant greens and luminous blues. With their cool and tropical spectra of color, Frank Bowling’s abstract paintings flash, flicker and surge across the modest, white-walled rooms of the gallery like a 1970s light show. The current exhibit shows off two dozen works he has created in the past 25 years.

Born in Guyana and schooled in Britain at the Royal College of Art, Bowling came of age during the heyday of color field painting in the 1960s, when Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis and Mark Rothko dripped, poured or soaked pigments onto mural-sized canvases.

Like the other color composers, Bowling’s mastery of chromatic nuance suavely casts its Technicolor coat over a viewer, bewitching her with his brio or lulling him into a laid-back, meditative calm. Unlike his colleagues, however, Bowling’s works are easel-sized, and their execution and format are uniquely his. Compositionally, he grounds his atmospheric abstractions by invoking traditional landscape tropes or featuring geometric shapes, such as rectangles, circles or clusters of horizontal bars. The moody, wine-dark field of “WaterHoll,” for example, is bracketed by a square of random globules of paint on one side and by horizontal bands of contrasting hues on the other. Given the evocative title, the pell-mell globs and orderly bars seem like symbols for elemental opposites suspended in primal waters.

The show, aptly titled Full of Light, also includes canvases with layered surfaces that seem to have materialized in a fluent, headlong rush, embodying what Jackson Pollock described as the “easy give and take” of a picture developing smoothly and effortlessly on its own. One of these paintings — the tall, slender “Kaieteurspray II” — is like a waterfall, with sprayed and splattered pigment cascading down 6 feet of canvas. (It’s likely that Bowling is alluding to the towering Kauterskill Falls in upstate New York, since he admits to a penchant for cryptic wordplay in his titles).

Another of Bowling’s formats represents a tempered orchestration for harmonious hues. These works are constructed more painstakingly than the others by piecing and layering canvas scraps and commercially produced fabrics. As a perk, the perfectly stapled and stitched edges are one of the intimate niceties of Bowling’s art. One such work, “Guyana Moons,” evokes a sultry landscape reminiscent of Paul Gauguin. Above the implied horizon, two color-suffused discs hover, one a lush orange, the other a pale after-image located higher in the sky. The lyricism here is undercut by a gritty, brownish, distorted shape located between the moons. In another canvas, entitled “Nesting,” horizontal stripes and a rectangle mimic the American flag. But unexpectedly and affectingly, the canvas glows a florid mustard-yellow color, fusing the recognizable patterns of the iconic flag into a coherent, saturated whole.

Bowling’s distinct methods of picture-making, from intuitive and kinetic to considered and deliberate, attest to the subtleties of his artistic practice, and his bold and experimental impulses produce dazzling, poetic pictures. This deeply satisfying show of radiant realms is a welcome tonic during the oppressive months of November and December, when gray-soaked skies and leaden clouds engulf southeastern Michigan.


Frank Bowling: Full of Light runs through Dec. 31. G.R. N’Namdi Gallery, 66 E. Forest St., Detroit; 313-831-8700.

Dennis Alan Nawrocki writes about art for the Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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