Light Escapes the Shadows

Frank Bowling in conversation with Gemma Brace on transparency and surface

Frank Bowling, Blitz, 2021. Photo: Anna Arca

  • 22 July 2022

Frank Bowling’s painting practice is characterized by relentless innovation and bold experimentation. Leading up to ‘Land of Many Waters,’ Bowling’s solo exhibition at the Arnolfini, international center for contemporary art in Bristol, United Kingdom, the artist participated in an extended dialogue with exhibition curator Gemma Brace. These conversations—complemented with short introductions by Brace that provide additional reflections on Bowling’s work—have been collected in ‘Frank Bowling: Penumbral Light,’ a new book by Hauser & Wirth Publishers released on the occasion of his eponymous exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Zurich in June 2022. In the excerpt below, Brace’s text and her conversation with Bowling consider the nuances of his painted surfaces.

Whether in reference to the work ‘Penumbral Lite’ or the exhibition ‘Penumbral Light,’ the title is rich with metaphorical meaning, as is often the case with Bowling’s wordplay. Derived from the Latin term ‘umbra,’ meaning shadow, penumbra refers to the ‘imperfect shadow,’ or ‘where the light from the source of the illumination (the sun) is only partly cut off,’ creating a lighter area. [1] Therefore, we could understand penumbral light as the space in which light escapes the shadow, or, conversely, as something that shrouds and obscures. [2]

Frank Bowling, Sacha’s Pour, 2019. Photo: Sacha Bowling

Frank Bowling, Thunder in the Night, 2020. Photo: Sacha Bowling

Many of the works in ‘Penumbral Light’ were made following a period of illness in the winter of 2019–20. Directly prior, Bowling had been working on a series he loosely refers to as the ‘gray’ works, including the cosmological surfaces of ‘Quisling’ (2019) and ‘Sacha’s Pour’ (2019). At first glance, these works appear at odds with the idea of illumination, with layer upon layer of paint, gel, and varnish obscuring any crack or crevice through which light or shadow might intermingle. But on closer inspection, this effect begins to soften and yield. In both works—and others, such as ‘Thunder in the Night’ (2020)—splatters of gel form rocky archipelagos across the surface, holding the paint beneath firmly in place. Yet the gel’s translucency allows the paint, and whatever else might be captured below—aluminum, glitter, and studio detritus—to shine from within, creating silvery reflections of reflections within each globule. [3]

Begun in late 2019 and completed upon Bowling’s return to the studio in early 2020, ‘The Pearl Poet’ can be seen to bridge the gap between the partial obscuration of this period and the luminosity of later works, suggesting a gradual process of stripping back at play. In ‘Land of Many Waters,’ ‘The Pearl Poet’ was hung between ‘Quisling’ and ‘Penumbral Lite,’ creating a liminal space within which Bowling’s attempt to ‘reveal’—be that light, geographical influences, or indeed himself—became apparent. Images of the work in progress show a vibrant underbelly of green, lilac, and ‘flash pearl’ pearlescent pigment, muted under multiple coats of Elvacite, beeswax, and pure turpentine. I recall a conversation with Benjamin Bowling, in which he described watching the work evolve. He remembered his father stating that he was ‘pushing [it] back,’ leading me to equate the process of erasure with that of creating transparency, ‘shifting the focus constantly between what is seen and what is not.’ [4]

Frank Bowling, Barticaborn I, 1967. Lowinger Family Collection. Photo: Stan Narten

Frank Bowling, For Zephyr, 1973. Photo: Charlie Littlewood

Bowling achieves this feat to a greater and lesser extent in this exhibition, edging ever closer to the bare canvas, which in ‘Watermelon Bight’ (2020), ‘Towards the Palace of the Peacock’ (2020), ‘Penumbral Lite,’ and ‘Up a Tree’ (2021), is never far below the surface. These works gesture to the past, reminding us of the transparency of ‘Barticaborn I’ (1967) and ‘For Zephyr’ (1973), while ‘Blitz’ (2021)—with its craters and collage—suggests more back and forth in Bowling’s exploration of light and the painted surface. When we spoke in February of 2021, we explored this idea in relation to paint and process:

Gemma Brace: It feels to me that something different is going on in these works. The surfaces appear to be less animated, as if you were stripping something back or laying it bare, and I wanted to know if this has grown out of a change in how you physically handle the paint?

Frank Bowling: Well, yes, I think it does, if only because I think I am one of the lucky ones of my generation. By the time we came along, 1959 to 1962 at the Royal College of Art, Jackson Pollock had made his mark, and so had Cézanne, and Fra Angelico. All these people who really had to tackle those things in an upfront way, prior to photography and print and stuff. Mark-making is this magical thing that our species has really attached itself to, and there’s this idea that you can make a mark and that it can have meaning across the whole community and beyond. I am very conscious of the fact that, but for those older artists, I couldn’t just throw paint, or dob it, and scratch it, or physically get a hold of it and squeeze it to death by just chucking it, spilling, or dripping it. All these aspects I have at my whim, and I try to use them as boldly and as honestly as I can, knowing that in some part of me—or maybe the whole of me—it’s going to catch on. You chuck the paint and seconds before you’re saying to yourself, ‘Well, if you chuck the red and the green, are you going to get mud?’ Maybe, but you might also get some kind of an electric response or a spark, like the elements out there that do that for real and turn us into who we are.

Frank Bowling, Watermelon Bight, 2020. Photo: Sacha Bowling

Frank Bowling, Towards the Palace of the Peacock, 2020. Photo: Sacha Bowling

GB: You’ve talked about experimentation and wanting to push the possibilities of paint as far as you can. How has this affected the way you work?

FB: Well, I think I just tried to hint at the various movements toward Modernism and the need to draw a structured line toward a new way of proceeding. That’s what I depend upon, having found out, and having proven to myself, that these things are very real and very necessary, and that they still play a part in supporting one’s claims as to what’s enduring, good, and substantial, as opposed to what was just passing through time. It was fashionable to learn how to draw, but by the time you get to Leonardo and Michelangelo, if you looked at the different things they drew, you’d know that there was something in the wind. It’s not that easy to talk about because not all the things that I am conscious of are to do with my education. When I went to art school, you had to learn to draw under these specific rules and do exercises. You tried your best and some of us could do it. I mean, anyone can draw. I believe that. You just have to be willing, and to want to put the time and effort in to learn how to hold a pencil or a brush. But even then, it was kind of an iffy thing to accept, and now it’s not acceptable at all.

Frank Bowling, Penumbral Lite, 2020. Photo: Alex Delfanne

Frank Bowling, Up a Tree, 2021. Photo: Sacha Bowling

When my friend Mel Gooding says that ‘anyone can do it’ and ‘anything can be done,’ that sounds so true. Why bother denying it? All you have to do is knuckle down, get in there, and do your best. You might not be as good as Cézanne, but if you take a good look at what was happening during his time, then you see that people didn’t believe that he could draw. And look at what he produced. It’s easy to yatter on about, but it’s also complicated and intimidating and almost always ends up by sounding like nonsense, so even the most concerned and dedicated tend to turn away. To answer your question, I feel that in taking the road that I have, that there is improvement, and that is absolutely correct. One day you pour the paint and it goes all wobbly and you can’t control it. Then sometimes it’s ahead of you, and you think of something and make a dash at it, and before you know it you’ve realized it. That is, of course, another aspect, whereby when it works, you feel so humble and you don’t really want to go beating your breast about it because you don’t know when you’re going to get this kind of thing again.

Gemma Brace is Exhibitions Producer at the Arnolfini, Bristol, and a freelance writer and curator. She writes on both international contemporary and Modern British art, and has worked on a range of curatorial projects across organizations.

Frank Bowling. Penumbral Light’ is on view at Hauser & Wirth Zurich, 10 June – 20 August 2022.

Frank Bowling: Penumbral Light’ is now available from Hauser & Wirth Publishers.

[1] Juliet Dee, ‘Shedding Light or Casting Shadows? The Penumbra Metaphor, Privacy and Privileged Communication,’ ‘Free Speech Yearbook,’ 44:1, 55–63, published online December 21, 2012, www.tandfonline. com/doi/abs/10.1080/08997225.2009.10556346?journalCode=rfsy19 [accessed February 2022].

[2] ‘FAMSF acquire ‘Penumbra,’’ press release [accessed February 2022].

[3] Benjamin Bowling, in conversation with author, April 13, 2021.

[4] Gemma Brace, ‘Land of Many Waters’ in ‘Frank Bowling: Land of Many Waters,’ ed. Gemma Brace (Bristol: Arnolfini, 2021) 21.

All artworks © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2022. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth