Eric Lee Bowman’s work confronts aestheticism without discarding it. It contorts the human body, creating uncanny, creature-like forms, while remaining compositionally harmonious. It is this tension that drew me to Bowman’s work at SPRING/BREAK in March. To simply toss away aestheticism in an assault on conventional norms feels like artistic anarchy. But to propose alternative bodily arrangements that still feel pleasing to the eye is progressive– there is more power in tantalization than chaos.
I met with Bowman to discuss his work over tea at Caffe Reggio on MacDougal– a classic spot for two New Yorkers. We started with the artist’s photographic legacy– an important foundation for Bowman’s artistic pursuits– but this soon devolved into a fruitful discussion about the idiosyncrasies of Bowman’s family, which shape the artist’s worldview.
His grandfather, Roy Pinney, got his start as a wildlife photographer on a University of Oxford expedition to Guyana. Prior to the trip, he had no experience using a camera, but a solid helping of chutzpah. He was seventeen years old, and had lied about his skill in order to be considered for the position. Pinney would go on to work for The Daily News, handling assignments from LIFE Magazine and Liberty Magazine, including the D-Day Invasion. A commercial Pinney shot for Kodak won an award at Cannes.
There’s no question that his grandfather’s photographic prowess influenced Bowman. Yet after hearing more about Bowman’s childhood, I’m convinced that Pinney’s intellect and curiosity were the true catalysts for his grandson’s fascination with the uncanny. Pinney was an entomologist– hence his original desire to travel to Guyana– and collected snakes in terrariums all over his house. When he played babysitter to a young Eric Lee Bowman, he brought snakes and mice to Bowman’s family home on the Upper West Side. In 2003, after graduating from college, Bowman moved in with his Grandfather, who was living in a rent-controlled apartment in the old Whitby hotel. It was here that the artist was immersed in his grandfather’s photographic archive, as well as his collection of published books– my favorite of which is titled How To Survive An Atomic Attack. Bowman and Pinney lived together for seven years, until Pinney’s death in 2010.
During the last year of his grandfather’s life, Bowman returned to photography after a prolonged hiatus. He taught himself to use Pinney’s antique cameras, and when the film he needed was discontinued, learned how to chemically make his own. “Faking It,” an exhibition at the Met of trick photography pre-Photoshop, inspired Bowman to apply his grandfather’s manipulation techniques to more challenging projects. He was enthralled by the concept of the fractured face.
The resulting photographs, which you can see here, are wet plate collodion images. The artist does not use mirrors, prisms, or broken glass. He does not cut film. How does he do it? Bowman won’t reveal his secrets. All he will say is that this process “existed before the invention of film.” He is decidedly process-driven, so not being privy to the intricacies of his process makes it difficult to understand where the artist is coming from.
Or does it? We are a product of the people around us who influence us. I don’t think it’s a far stretch to suggest that Bowman’s close relationship with his unusual grandfather has influenced his art-making. He takes a scientific approach to the human form, isolating anatomical fragments, replicating them and then reinserting them to instigate the viewer’s discomfort. Bowman is keenly aware of the uncanny– something that feels human but is not quite classifiable. He has concocted a method to maximize uncanniness through means of dismemberment and dislocation. It is both mathematical and macabre, a combination Roy Pinney would undoubtedly have appreciated.
In figure 3, a wet plate collodion tintype, there is something discomforting about the doubled features. But the source of the uncanniness is the enlarged forehead from which the figure’s two facial halves split. The fleshy midsection between the two halves of his skull is deeply disturbing. The viewer struggles to make sense of its substance. Notice how the coloration is slightly darker there, and a bit patchy. Is this some sort of biological growth that formed within the brain, forcing it to split in two? Or is this a mass of alien matter, implanted into the skull to force mitosis?
I am also both drawn to and repulsed by the figure’s beady eyes, seemingly devoid of pupils. And what features emerge from the black triangle between the figure’s facial halves? Snickering mouths, pursed in restrained laughter, taunt the viewer. Why are you frightened? they seem to say. The mouths below these snarling lips are different. Perhaps they come from a different portrait model. These lips are slightly parted and feel quite relaxed. Is the creature above, with beady eyes and taunting smirks, encroaching on the figure below? Or is this one multi-headed being? Bowman poses these uncanny possibilities without offering the reprieve of an answer.
Following the creation of this series, Bowman found himself in new circumstances. A healthy romantic relationship with an open-minded artist inspired him to experiment with a new medium: collage. He began tearing images from old LIFE and porn magazines and reorganizing them into performative collages.
These collages redistribute flesh in a similarly uncanny fashion, but they feel less confrontational. While his fractured faces taunted the viewer through direct eye contact, the subjects of his collages remained behind the fourth wall.
The work is equally brutal– note the tube being inserted into the orifice of the subject in figure 4– but it asks less of the viewer. We are able to let out eyes wander over the work, taking in every displaced breast and repositioned eye, considering the trauma of the inserted tube, without feeling complicit. Bowman is a process-based artist. His purpose is not to make us question notions of autonomy and consent. It is therefore either his subconscious or my associations that lead me to grapple with this question of complicit-ness. The distanciation from the work allows the viewer a reprieve– but a guilty one. Is this figure engaged in an act of pleasure or manipulation? And should we be allowed to walk away unscathed?
Eric Lee Bowman’s manipulated photographs and collages ask more questions than they answer. They lead the viewer to question not only how they were made, but why? I am fascinated by Bowman’s personal history and his relationship with his late Grandfather, the famous Roy Pinney. I am curious as to the cathartic effect of photographic manipulation. Bowman, ever the technique-driven artist, is tight-lipped on that subject.
Bowman’s work also asks: Why are you frightened? Why are you drawn to me? Why do you turn away? Utterly self-aware of its own uncanniness, the work confronts the viewer’s pre-conceived expectations of the human form. We are forced to sit with these expectations and wonder why we respond the way we do when these expectations are denied. This is the magic of Eric Lee Bowman’s work. It makes us wonder what it means to be human.
Until next time!