PAIR OF HAIR SQUARES: Astrid Bowlby’s show at Gallery Joe involves two iterations of each square canvas on display — some of which have odd materials, like Scoopy Peanut (a and b), made from cat hair and bubble gum.
Bowlby, Flowers, Version 1 (b)
DOUBLE BUBBLE: These two versions of Calvin as Wheelbarrow, displayed side by side in Astrid Bowlby’s “Sample(d)(r),” are close to identical, but each is a separate piece of art. (Calvin is Bowlby’s cat.)
Astrid Bowlby has a problem many artists would kill for: Her works sell too fast, disappearing into private collections, perhaps never again to be seen by the artist who made them.
This probably doesn’t seem like a big deal to those who would happily exchange some of their artwork for money. But it’s difficult to grow as an artist if your work constantly evaporates before you have time to live with it, know it and reflect on it. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts alumna and current visiting critic used to try to recreate from memory some of the works she’d sold, but she always found the resuscitations wanting. “Sample(d)(r),” currently at Gallery Joe, is Bowlby’s interesting solution to getting some quality time with her own work.
The immaculately white gallery walls showcase 30 of Bowlby’s 9-inch-by-9-inch squares, hung in isolated pairs with titles like Pencil Stencil (version 3, a and b). Each pair comprises two panels that are similar as twins, but not identical — each individual square is an original work of art created by the artist’s hand, not a print. Only one square out of each set is for sale; the other is reserved for Bowlby to keep. You might buy one, but you could never own both.
Bowlby is known for creating room-sized installations out of ink drawings on paper, like Everything, in which the artist attempted to live-draw “everything” (i.e., hundreds of objects from coat hangers to fire hydrants to farm animals, and including requests from the general public) with black ink on several long rolls of paper over the course of the installation at the University of Southern Maine earlier this year. Everything, like so many of her works, was sold; the enormous piece is now in a second incarnation an hour outside Philly at SEI Investments in Oaks, Pa., home of the West Collection.
Bowlby’s smaller works are usually meticulous drawings made with layers of obsessive mark-marking, and some of the pairs of works in “Sample(d)(r)” are of this type: Chrysanthemum, a close-up of a flower with every petal rendered in painstaking linear detail in watercolor and colored pencil, or Flowers (version 1, a and b), a field of countless tiny generic flowers in detailed ink.
The new-media panels on view are less recognizable as Bowlby’s oeuvre, and some of them are very strange. Once Upon, a ground of white luminescent spirals resembling something like Disney-princess primordial soup, is made from dried pasta, medium and acrylic paint. The coal black sea, a tar-like territory, is rendered in poppy seeds mixed with paint. Strangest of all is the mixture of white cat hair and bubble gum called Scoopy Peanut (a and b).
But even the panels created with gross materials were obviously created with scrupulous care for craft and neatness — the cat hair is as perfectly squared as the ink. Everything is pretty. Each panel, though two exist, is a precious object. It’s almost difficult to detect that anything is strange in such an ordered environment, and it took reading the gallery materials to jar this writer’s brain into wondering why the duplicate panels were necessary.
It might be tempting to dismiss Bowlby’s dilemma as a “first world” type of problem, but making a point to hang on to one of each of this show’s panels does seem like a very smart idea. To become better at anything, you do need time to contemplate what you have done. It isn’t wrong or ridiculous to carve out the tools you need to become a greater success, to imagine a life as ordered and uncluttered as a white room full of squares exactly the same size.
It is unclear what exactly the fate of the panels that Bowlby keeps will be. She may use them in a future installation, or she may just take them back to the studio from which they came and simply think about them.
Sigh. It must be nice.
“Sample(d)(r),” through Jan. 18, Gallery Joe, 302 Arch St., 215-592-7752, galleryjoe.com.
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