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Let it come down

By Nicholas Laughlin

First published in Caribbean Beat, November/December 2012

On a wall near my desk hangs a three-sheet “Map of the Seacoast of Guyana”, depicting the strip of land along the Atlantic Ocean where most of Guyana’s population dwells. In a sense, it is really a map of waters — more accurately, of the flow of water. Much of the Guyanese coast lies below sea level. It is a man-made landscape, drained by engineers over centuries, through a vast and intricate network of sea walls, dams, trenches, and kokers — a Dutch-derived name for sluice gates. This complex hydrological system is charted in thin blue lines across the map’s surface, densely intersecting with the greys and browns of towns, villages, and roads.

I thought of this map as I stood not long ago in a gallery at Tate Britain in London. I’d come to see Drop, Roll, Slide, Drip, a small exhibition of “poured paintings” by the Guyanese-British artist Frank Bowling, curated by the American art historian Courtney J. Martin. (The show opened in April 2012, and runs until 30 April, 2013.) Born in Bartica in 1936, Bowling left British Guiana when he was fifteen, and was educated at the Chelsea School of Art and the Royal College of Art, where his classmates included David Hockney and R.B. Kitaj. In 1967, frustrated by the British art scene and its narrow expectations for a black or Caribbean artist, Bowling moved to New York. There his earlier figurative painting shifted towards abstraction — in part thanks to exposure to the American Abstract Expressionists, but also because, as he put it in a recent interview, abstraction “isn’t hidebound by colour or race.”

Bowling began making his poured works in 1973, experimenting with techniques for deploying paint across a surface. Eventually he designed and built a special tilting platform that allowed him to pour acrylic paint onto his canvases from six feet above. Sometimes he used tape on the canvas to channel the flow of the paint. The colours swirl and mingle as they move down the canvas, until they pool at the bottom edge.

The Tate show, installed in a “focus gallery,” collects twelve of these paintings, and includes a short video interview with the artist. “I wanted to be the best artist with using colour, line, whatever,” he says. “The paintings should be their own thing” — that is, inspired exercises in painting itself, not thematic or autobiographical statements. And looked at as examples of pure abstraction, they are beguiling works, enticingly tactile: the kind of paintings you must resist the urge to touch.

But gazing into these eddies and cascades of paint, my mind went back to that seacoast chart. I remembered also Bowling’s celebrated map paintings — semi-abstractions in which the shapes of Guyana, South America, or Africa float in fields of colour — which he began making not long before the poured works. And I wondered if the Drop, Roll, Slide, Drip paintings could not also be looked at as maps — perhaps of an imagination shaped by childhood in a landscape where livelihood and indeed life itself depend on controlling liquid flow.

In the flat expanses of coastal Guyana, the pattern of drainage is an immense diagram of human willpower’s negotiations with nature. In a perhaps not dissimilar way, Bowling’s poured paintings are charts of movement and resistance, of the artist’s own negotiations with his medium’s physical limits, with the facts of gravity, viscosity, and friction.