Robert Bowen lives and works in San Francisco where he creates his incredibly unique brand of bold, iconographic images. Having initially been involved in street art and graffiti, Bowen became particularly interested in the more unusual and figurative styles of the art form. Inspired by what he was seeing, he turned his attention towards evolving his own fine art. Fast forward over a decade and Robert has developed an unmistakeable painting style of his own and is a respected and widely exhibited artist within the New Contemporary Art scene. Drawing inspiration from his fascination with the animal kingdom, in parallel with his horror at humanity’s relationship with it, Bowen’s current series of paintings explores our obsession for tampering with Mother Nature and poses the question, “where will it all end?”.
With a very impressive exhibiting history under his belt, alongside numerous features in prominent art and culture publications (including a 10 page feature in Juxtapoz Magazine – the New Contemporary Art bible), it is no wonder that Bowen has built up such a notable reputation.
WOW x WOW are proud to be able to offer you this exclusive interview with Robert, in which he expounds upon his creative ideas and also throws in the occasional anecdote for good measure.
Hey Robert, thanks for taking the time to answer a few of our questions. Firstly, can you tell us a bit about your background and what lead you to consider a career in the arts?
NAIVETE! Really though, I used to sit and draw a lot when I was a little kid, I would entertain myself drawing Snoopy and Oakland A’s logos. Later I got into graffiti and weirdly enough that somehow opened my eyes to the rest of the art world. The only other things I’ve ever wanted to do with my life were to design women’s clothing and be a chef. All are in the creative vein, but visual artist seemed the best route for me.
What does your studio look like?
It’s a small, and efficient studio. A realtor would describe it as cozy. It has the standard drafting table, easel, and art supplies. It’s also full of animal skulls, assorted insects and butterflies in shadow boxes, Disneyana, animal specimens in jars, some WWII relics, and circus memorabilia. It’s home.
Your current body of work is predominantly made up of subject matter involving animal/machine hybrids. Can you let us in on your thought process behind this series of paintings?
With this current body of work I am continuing to focus on my fascination with animal/machinery hybrids. There are so many unanswered questions I have about them. Is this a not so distant future reality? A terrible road we should never go down? How do I make the Killer Whale a more efficient killer? Can the marlin and shark be even faster hunters, more dangerous to their only predators, man? If the bees continue to disappear, should we design a replacement to pick up where they left off? Or do we accept our fate and stop toying with Mother Nature since that is what got us into trouble in the first place. I’m continuing to play mad scientist in a lab that should never really exist.
Your love for the animal kingdom is something which is evident in your art. When did this love affair begin and what was it that initially sparked your interest. Also, what are your biggest concerns about humanity’s relationship with animals?
I’m not really sure. I think it’s something that’s always been there. Growing up, my family always had cats, fish, and birds, etc. I would always have a newt or a hamster or something. I remember just sitting and staring at them, they intrigued me. My fascination with the animal world has only grown since then. Funny side story, I had always been allergic to dogs when I was a kid, but I would always play with them anyway because…dogs are awesome and who doesn’t want to play with a dog! The result would be a horrendous asthma attack followed by some hives. But I would do it anyway. When I got older and was finally in a place where I was allowed a dog, I was determined to get one and overcome my allergy. The first few months were hell, but well worth it, my dog allergy is no more, and my dog, her name is Cricket, is my best friend.
I think we have screwed the proverbial pooch when it comes to humanity’s relationship with animals. We have WAAAAY overstepped our boundaries as a species. The fact that we even have to use dialogue like “nature preserve” or words like “conservation” when it comes to the habitat of creatures we are supposed to be sharing a space with is ridiculous and proof that we have lost sight of the way things are supposed to be. It’s pretty sad.
You have previously suggested that some of your work from a few years ago was a balancing act, with the world’s darker issues on one side of the scales and a healthy dose of humour on the other. Would you say that this is still true of the work you are creating now and what is your desired response from the viewers of your art?
Partially, the healthy dose of humor has diminished quite a bit. The darker issues are still there, but I think I’ve replaced the humor with a strange odd beauty. The creatures I’m creating are a bit on the darker side, but I still want them to be seen as beautiful and somewhat elegant.
What’s the most extreme reaction you’ve had to your work?
I’ve gotten the laughs I was looking for, I’ve had people say they were disturbed, my favorite is the tear or two shed by a commission. Any strong reaction one way or another is fine with me and all I can hope for. It’s how I know I’m doing something right.
The backgrounds of your paintings have been gradually filling with more expressive brush strokes, paint drips and splashes. Is this something that you wish to explore further?
It is. I felt I was missing something by being to clean and controlled. Being more expressive with the paint has been a freeing experience for me, it sets a sort of tone with the stuff I’m working on that I think was lacking before.
Some of your earlier work made reference to characters from pop culture and over the years these references appear to have become less frequent. Has this been a conscious decision or did it just happen naturally?
It happened naturally, but at a time when I needed it to happen most. I was looking for a bit of change and something new in my art, and then while half asleep I pictured a jet engine and a shark, and how easily they could be combined. That was the first one I painted.
Tell us about some of the collections you have built up? Did you have any plans when you started collecting and what sort of influence do you feel your collections have on your creative mind?
I have slowed down a bit with most of the collecting, but I do have a growing collection of skulls and antlers. My collection of insects in shadow boxes is one of my favorites. Most of the stuff in these collections has made it into my work in one form or another. I have shifted a bit into collecting more art when I can.
Thinking about the time since you decided to become a full-time painter, can you talk about the evolution of your creative skill set over this period?
I’d like to think I have been (and hopefully always will be) continuing to hone my craft. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to take the time needed to work on something without the distraction of someone else’s voice in your ear, or having to take care of other people’s business before tending to your own. My focus has wholly shifted to making art and finding venues and ways to share it. At times it’s a pretty stressful lifestyle, but I’d rather stress about art stuff and my own bottom line, than stress about someone else’s. It’s a decent trade and a blessing.
Alex Pardee and yourself were graff artist partners in crime back in the day. Do you have any good anecdotes about those times that you’d be willing to share with us?
I totally do. There are tons of hilarious adventures and fucked up stories, this one has nothing at all to do with graffiti but it’s one of my favorites. It was somewhere in the late nineties, the internet was pretty new, and we were totally into horror movies and serial killers. We were looking up some Zodiac Killer lore, who was suspected, a utility van that had been spotted in the area of the killings, that sort of thing. Then we read about the spot were the first murder had taken place. We decided to go check it out for ourselves.
It was at the end of a residential area in Benicia, you kept going past all the houses and all of a sudden you were in rural nowhere. The road dead ends, and there was a gate. Sooooo, we decide to get out of the car, hop the little gate and walk through a field. Sounds totally safe, right? No horror movie ever started that way. Before you know it, we’re trudging through knee high fog soaked wet grass, surrounded by cows. We can see what looked to be abandoned farm house not too far ahead of us. TOOOTALLY safe, we keep going. We get to the house and like a couple of expendable characters in a movie, we go inside. With nothing but a lighter to see with. We work our way into the house, slowly lurking and whispering room by room, our eyes adjusting to the light, we can see pretty well with the lighter. We walk up to a wall to notice that the walls aren’t covered by wall paper, but with turn of the century newspapers, THE ENTIRE HOUSE is covered in newsprint from the early 1900’s! Totally bizarre. We find a bath room, in the corner of it is an old claw foot tub filled with sludge and indistinguishable muck, next to the tub is a hole in the wood flooring. A hole just big enough for a person to crawl through. So we crawl under the house. There’s a space just big enough for you crawl around if you stay on your stomach and it goes under the entire house. There are tons of animal skeletons and jars of unidentifiable liquids, it probably wasn’t the best idea to keep using a lighter to see who knows what was in those jars. I still have a cat skull I took from there in my studio. So we get our fill of creepiness and decide its time to get out of there before something terrifying happens. We get out of there as fast as we can, we get back to the gate and proceed to hop back over it, as soon as we hit the ground, I shit you not, we are hit with the headlights from a creepy utility van that had been parked there while we were in the house! The van slowly pulls forward and starts to turn around and drive off at a terrifyingly slow pace and then just drives off. We were frozen with fear, did we just happen across one of the most famous Serial Killers who was never caught at the scene of one of his first murders? I’d like to think so.
As an artist who has earned a well-deserved reputation within the New Contemporary Art scene, how would you sum up what is important about this international collective of artists and what are your hopes for the future of the scene?
Shit, thank you for saying so. You know, it’s an interesting time to be an artist. With the popularity of social media and the ease of spreading your visions and creations worldwide, it’s a hell of a lot easier to gain a following and an audience now than it ever has been for artists who came before. I just hope I can continue to be a part of this machine as it gains popularity and relevance, and I believe the scene is so vast and eclectic that it will be hard for it to become stale and irrelevant.
What’s next for Robert Bowen?
Continuing down my own path. I’d like to come out with my first art book, maybe some toys of some of my creatures and I’d like to get back into large scale mural painting…and honing my tamale making skills.