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arts and environment

Geographies of the Unknown: Joe Fowler's Sequestered Elements 

St. John’s NL

by Martin Poole

Complexity in Joe Fowler’s recent exhibition Sequestered Elements at Gallery24 ( arises in part from the art itself, and from the many potential responses to it. The work is ambiguous, thus each piece can be isolated and given a different view. Yet, some commonalities exist, namely the strong spatial relationships marked by a rhythm that follows from dependent lines and tidy colours. It holds a kinetic energy that involves us. It piques our collective curiosity. 

Fowler : Pioneer Responsive

Pioneer Responsive (Lithograph, 2015) :: Courtesy of the Artist

The title Sequestered Elements both reveals and conceals. It is deceivingly simple. Easily translatable as “hidden elements” it seems an unnecessary complication, a fancy word replacing another. But the title addresses Fowler’s relationship to this work. First, the word Elements expresses the fundamental quality of something that is required for it to exist; second, Sequestered means both something hidden, and something removed from sight. Given that Fowler’s past interests stem from common manufactured objects as a meaningful source of the human condition, then this is arguably the element he again attempts to find.

This exhibition seeks a similar answer, but instead of sculpture created from familiar objects, and coloured silkscreens, he offers a neutralized subject through paint and lithograph, and confines them to shades of black and white. His works range from the abstract to the surreal, and spontaneity appears from many attempts. He implicates himself as a seeker of meaning, just enough to establish his intention, but not to ruin the mystery. 

Fowler : Pioneer Responsive 2
Pioneer Responsive 2 (Lithograph, 2015) :: Courtesy of the Artist

Setting the precedent for this exhibition is the lithograph Pioneer Responsive 2, a composition of geometric shapes that can be enjoyed for its precision and confused for its intention. It leaves very little to go on. Yet, the piece embodies movement, an action beginning at the center and meeting the eye. The soft tones of grey and black render it subdued, a passive subject struck to life by the viewer’s interest.

When we account for the title, we are taken to a literal domain. Specifically, a theoretical question: if we were to get a response from the Pioneer probe, would we understand it?

The Pioneer probes are among the first to visit areas beyond Pluto. Attached to these probes (etched in gold) are Pioneer Plaques displaying information about humankind. Although devoid of spoken language, the designers used drawings, geometry and binary notation, to denote our intellectual capability, our position in the galaxy and our physical appearance. It remains an attempt at a universal language that other intelligent life could recognize. But, what is being described? Are we naked and fluent in Boolean logic? The message depends on whether the information is taken literally or figuratively. 

Akin to the subject depicted on the Pioneer Plaques, Fowler strips away anything resembling reality, that is, context, colour, and spatiality, essentially how we perceive these subjects normally within our sensory scope. Remaining are the elements that he aims to push forward, which can be considered the plan, or perhaps the blueprint of a subject.

Fowler’s finished work is a translation that attempts to simplify the act of transmission. To transmit only the important elements, that can convey information efficiently while distant from a subject.

The subjects are trivial, acting as anchors for habituating an otherwise complex piece, especially if the subject was identified after completion of the piece, as a more-or-less best fit. Can this be appropriated to all works of this series? It appears that each piece was planned without considering an external subject from reality or nature, and rather was appropriated afterwards akin to a Rorschach experiment.  

Take the painting Onion Rings as an example, for it begs the question of whether onion rings actually influenced the creation of this piece, or if it was named arbitrarily after completion.

Fowler : Onion Rings

Onion Rings (Acrylic, 2015) :: Courtesy of the Artist

Akin to Pioneer Responsive 2, this piece has a simplified center, a complete spatial symmetry, with blacks and whites grouped horizontally and vertically. Again, the grey background neutralizes the subject, and it remains more of a construction than a depiction.

Hangover food. Onion rings are anything but sterile but here we are. In a way, my entire critique can be summarized through this work alone. We are getting a side of this subject that verges on absurdity, that is, an elaborate and tedious account of junk food, fuelled by black and white shades that serve to both embellish and simplify the complexity of the lines.

If I am to believe that the exterior subject (as noted by the title) comes after the work is completed then my analysis is confined to this process. As a consequence, I should consider only what is given, as indifferent to reality or nature. I am given the same sort of information that the Pioneer Plaques will transmit if regarded.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s discussion on abstraction in Being and Nothingness touches on an applicable point. He states: “[A]n abstraction is made when something not capable of existing in isolation is thought as in an isolated state. The concrete by contrast is a totality which can exist by itself alone. […] Red is an abstraction because color cannot exist without form”.

In light of this, can we describe art without reaching for works of art for reference? Arguably, after many years of marriage one knows one’s spouse, and—besides the exceptional—conversations and deeds will not alter this fundamental understanding.  Should we then address art itself by assessing its manifestations? It seems that our opinions of what art and humanity is would be ever-changing according to the objects we use as evidence, if we are to accept them as a determining factor. Yet, this exhibition does uncover our collective desire to find meaning where no meaning actually exists. In short, we find meaning from the absurd.

Note the painting below titled Barbershop Sign.  It is more likely that the piece was named in order to connect it to something, and given meaning based on the sequence of lines.

Fowler : Barbershop Sign
Barbershop Sign (Acrylic, 2015) :: Courtesy of the Artist

Regardless, it is well balanced. The moving helix of a traditional Barber shop sign (in consideration of the title) is muted, divided and united in fragments of instance, enabling its preservation. The eyes want to shift from column to column, following the diagonals and finding correlations between them. 

Fowler: Dreamhouse

Dream House (Acrylic, 2015) :: Courtesy of the Artist

The work Dream House has a dual meaning, that one dreams of a white-picket fence, from personal economy, and a dream that is confused with reality, in the sense of surrealism. It remains a convincing piece for the balance of stripping away—as mentioned above—and giving an approachable object in return. This is a rare case where the subject could have been identified without the title. However, akin to the rest, the imagination seeks to identify the literal elements: the fence, and the door; and the surreal elements: the roof that could also be the hat of one who dreams.    

Sequestered Elements invites many possible meanings, proving that in many cases the story cannot be told. That any particular medium attempting to capture too much with ease, or too little with difficulty, leads to absurdity. Fowler acknowledges this, and has provided his own efforts in this exhibition, by rendering the elemental an elusive notion—given our methods to understand it, and providing his own geographies of the unknown.


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