The River Lea valley in north-east London has its own atmosphere. It is neither London nor suburbia. Industrial estates are interspersed with canals, marshes and reservoirs. Electricity pylons tower over green spaces, populated by birds and canal-boat dwellers who have their own lifestyle.
The bleak North Circular snakes across the valley past supermarkets, D-I-Y shopping centres, and a greyhound racing stadium. The decrepit and abandoned coexist with an intense concentration of human life and activity.
This is the urban landscape that surrounds Michael Bowdidge. He observes it and photographs the post-industrial relics around him. His “found images” become the starting point for a complex process of restructuring and composition using digital imaging software.
These digital paintings are rich, at times disturbing “mindscapes”, full of mediated references to their origin in the world outside. The viewer is a participant in a journey from the physically present object to another aesthetic and emotional reality, along roads and tracks signposted by the artist.
Bowdidge’s images function as a touchstone between the artist and his audience. The experience is ambivalent and contains within itself not one but many interpretations. What he creates feels like architectural space, film or stage sets or the multiple universes described by astrophysicists.
Some images evoke the idea of Big Brother surveillance and the post-apocalyptic nightmares of science fiction writer Philip K Dick, familiar through films like Blade Runner and Matrix. Sci-fi illustrators Chris Foss and Jim Burns have influenced the artist.
The capacity of Bowdidge’s recent digital art works to reflect back a range of sensations and ideas arises from the artistic manipulation of the original image. An image is moved and altered through a sequence of “filters” which are part of the software.
These allow the modulation of a given image by fading, squashing and squeezing it, or flipping it around. All the changes are incorporated and present within the surface of the result. The original photograph is not lost but is still there with its original colour gradations and its natural palette.
While the final outcome loses the physical shape of the original objects or scene, it retains their colours, tonality and internal textures. The “feeling” of place is there. The beauty of reflections in water remains and even becomes stronger, for example, in “paintings” of the reed-fringed water of the River Lea.
This improvised manipulation of an image to see what can be done with it is both conscious and unconscious, like the seemingly-random splashes of an action painting. The final image is both the end result and the process of arriving at the result. Knowing when to stop, when the new artistic image is complete then becomes a decisive moment.
Bowdidge pays tribute to his teacher, Jules de Goede, who, he says, made him understand how to recognise the moment when a work was complete – when adding new elements or changes actually became not merely superfluous but detrimental. “When the image is more than the sum of its parts, then it is complete” – this is the dialectical principle which De Goede taught his students at Middlesex University.
“Reading” an image from a surface into depth is facilitated by depth “clues” – devices that indicate that something is behind or in front of something else. Artists have depicted knives, for example, in a still-life, to take the eye into depth, or black to indicate a void. In these digital paintings, the idea of space and movement is created by multiple converging lines and arches, reminiscent of cathedrals and railway stations. We see references to the Futurist art of the early 20th century.
Bowdidge feels close to the idea expressed by that archetypal English poet and mystic, William Blake, who wrote: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” The artist keeps the viewer in a continual state of not-knowing, not quite able to de-code, so that we can’t quite recognise the object.
Our mind is continually trying to solve the visual conundrum transmitted through the senses, when the image draws you in and pushes you back at the same time. “Once you recognise something, you dismiss it and switch off,” Bowdidge believes.
He deftly picks up themes from the art forms of the last century, using his camera and digital software rather than the more labour-intensive paintbrush and canvas. English painters from the mid-twentieth century come to mind - the acid greens and underground tunnels of Graham Sutherland, for example and Paul Nash’s scenes of wartime devastation. Thus a distinctly English mystical sensibility and empirical source join together with Max Ernst’s war-torn surreal landscapes and Paul Klee’s jewel-like colour abstractions.
But these are only hints and notions which give added resonance to an artist whose work is nothing if not contemporary. Discarded shopping trolleys are incorporated into techno-industrial gothic as hidden symbols of our times.
Here is a visually acute artist whose eye is informed by all this, but who for all his “sampling” plays an insistent tune of his own, which is of the 21st century – its past, present and future.
This article first appeared in Socialist Future
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