Gloomy. Despondent. Melancholic.
At some stage everyone will have gone through one of the myriad feelings of being down in the dumps. Defined as a mildly depressed state, it also serves as the title for the latest show at Cactus by Doug Bowen.
The artist, inducted as the newest member of Leeds Weirdo Club at the start of the year, here exhibits for the first time without his colleagues in some capacity and produces a display of markedly different work from that which has gone before. On previous outings the influence the group has born on one another has been evident, but Down in the Dumps sees Bowen move away from the overtly blunt comedic influence and purposefully shallow nature that has typified his practice, to a more refined state of playful yet serious display.
Standalone exhibitions by individual members of collectives or groups working so closely such as those in Leeds Weirdo Club can often feel an extension of the group’s output, but here Bowen astutely sidesteps any authorial confusion and allows his work its own space in which it has opportunity to flourish.
Although relatively sparse compared to previous Cactus exhibitions, Down in the Dumps comprises four works all of the colour grey that occupy opposing halves of the gallery. Immediately apparent to the viewer are bubble bubbles, Try again and Tuxed up, a series of three digital prints on vinyl that have been framed and mounted, before being covered in rub removable ink, similar to that applied to scratchcards.
Arriving for install with silver façade completely intact it was left to Cactus curator Joe Orr to remove the semi-gelatinous film obscuring the images beneath, with no recourse from the artist as to when to stop the process of erasure. Through the act of removal (and by extension the activation of the work by an external agent), the images underneath were allowed in part to appear at the surface through the mire of silver. Revealing glimpses of a series of bubbles set against a bubble-gum pink background, the repeatedly typed words ‘try again’, and the photograph of a drunken (and sleeping) naked party goer who had a full tuxedo drawn on him in marker pen that has become popular on the internet, the works all ostensibly draw on and reinforce the exhibition title in varying capacities through their acceptance and rejection of the state of being.
Described as an exhibition of semi-autobiographical works by the artist, there is never any clear demarcation between humour and seriousness, leaving the audience to explore the ambiguity and decide for themselves if this is a serious or sardonic insight.
Somewhat hidden on the wall directly opposite the printed works, and only fully apparent once the visitor turns to leave is ‘The Official Squad Medal Collection 2015 (Collector’s edition) #1 – #24.’ The work comprises a series of coins made by the artist from the melting down and casting of drinks cans. Repeating a process Bowen performed when he was a child with his grandfather, the individual coins (acting as reified collector’s objects) could then be traded and collected with friends. Outside the obvious sarcastic critique of the collector culture that the artist has grown up in, the work gives little away, save for the one liner overarching the entire exhibition of effectively having giant scratchcards sat opposite a case full of oversized coins that will never come in to contact with one another, again possibly reinforcing the show’s title.
The link between objects and the innate human compulsion to collect and claim ownership has always factored in Bowen’s practice, but here it is literally and figuratively overshadowed by an emotional enquiry that feels like a potential new departure for the artist’s work.
The exhibition doesn’t particularly pose or answer any tangible questions, and can be seen (in lexical semantic terms) as more of a statement with relevant examples. But arguably that is when Bowen operates at his best as an artist when he is allowed the opportunity to craft a display around everyday phenomena that is relatable to the wider public. Seemingly devoid of any larger immediate artistic concerns, his work actively encourages us to question the culture we inhabit through the use of visual (and wider artistic) signifiers.
James Schofield is an artist and curator based between Leeds and Liverpool.
Image courtesy of the artist and Cactus.
Down in the Dumps, Cactus, Liverpool.
14 August – 13 September 2015.
Doug Bowen was represented by Cactus alongside Hannah Knox, Harry Meadley and Emily Jane McCartan at this year’s Manchester Contemporary, 24 – 27 September at Old Granada Studios, Manchester.