With the Medium of Mauna: Edward Bowen’s Paintings from the Monastery

By Marsha Pearce Monday, November 12th, 2012 Categories: Features, Updates
 

The concept of mauna or silence is key to several spiritual practices. Through mauna the ego can be tranquilized. The ego is “a conglomeration of recurring thought forms and conditioned mental-emotional patterns that are invested with a sense of I, a sense of self…. [The ego] contains…identifications, not only with possessions, but also with opinions, external appearance, long-standing resentments, or concepts of yourself as better than or not as good as others, as a success or failure” (Tolle 2005). The ego is that voice in your head that never stops speaking – an entity that takes possession of you. It is, as Tolle explains, how we usually identify ourselves but he insists it is a voice that can be our “own worst enemy” by its very nature of being an “incessant stream of mind.” The ego is “compulsive thinking, most of it repetitive and pointless” (Tolle 2005). However, when we suppress the ego – when we still that voice – a space opens up for other entities to come into being; myriad forms beyond what we understand as “I” become perceptible. In Edward Bowen’s latest exhibition entitled, “Paintings from the Monastery, Sans Souci 2009-2012,” the artist uses the medium of mauna along with acrylic paint, concentration, inks, discipline, oil pastel, patience and other image making media to translate onto canvas and paper his acute consciousness of a breadth and depth of forms that exist both within and beyond himself.

Details from Pyramid House with Red Tree by Edward Bowen. Acrylic and collage on paper. All photographs by Marsha Pearce.

Edward Bowen has spent the last three years at a relatively remote, old family space in rural Sans Souci, Trinidad – a studio and living space dubbed the monastery – where he has sequestered himself from the noise and incessant stream of conversations in the capital city of Port of Spain. For Bowen, Port of Spain is rife with self-consciousness – a stifling egotism. “I did not want to focus on my career. I became fed up of people’s expectation of how I should live and be. I wanted to see what would happen if I got some quiet…I got in the car and went up to Sans Souci,” shares Bowen. The monastery at Sans Souci is a kind of sacred space where Bowen’s daily devotions involve planting and reaping food, making an infinite connection or endless circle in which human and nature are yoked together. “When you are bending over to touch a plant, you are making a loop. You create a circuit,” says Bowen. The monastery is also where he has read the Bhagavad Gita countless times. “The root word of Krishna means to scrape. When I sit down to read the Gita, it is literally to attempt to scrape the mind clean,” Bowen explains. It is a scraping of a false sense of self and crippling thoughts. This kind of cleansing is echoed in his artistic practice, which is not to be understood as separate from spiritual practice. He also makes efforts to scrape his mind in the making of his art. “When you start putting down a mark on paper, everything gets silent,” says the artist. Thoughts of the dog, of family, of people and things are muted. In that quietude, only the mark on the surface becomes audible. Mauna then, that silence, becomes a critical medium with which “a new equation of form” – as Bowen describes it – can emerge.

Detail from Red Abstract Landscape by Edward Bowen. Acrylic and collage on paper.

Bowen’s forms, which come out of mauna, are not pretty in the conventional sense. “I don’t like pretty. Pretty bothers me. That order of things. The rectangle [the canvas or paper] is the place to shake things up. I get to subvert what is considered pretty. I get to cancel it,” he says. Edward Bowen’s forms, therefore, do not succumb easily to order and good behavior. In pieces like “Pyramid House with Red Tree” and “Red Abstract Landscape,” hundreds of marks and gestures are used to play with orderliness, to unsettle orthodox, tidy arrangements. Colours are layered in ways that create visual dissonance for the uninitiated. Hues are allowed to rub up against each other in transgressive ways. What does red, plus peach, plus yellow, minus purple, multiplied by blue and divided by green equal? Bowen’s equations create relationships where colours are allowed to speak in ways that sabotage the viewer’s attempt to make quick sense of what the various colours might have to say to each other. His forms, characterised by contrasts and contradictions, offer no straightforward answers.

The density of each piece keeps us riveted – our eyes are forced to keep seeing and reading through areas of transparent applications of paint, looking between scrawls and pen hatching, imagining what is around and behind opaque areas in the work. Bowen aptly describes each of his pieces as a book. Indeed, the multitudinous spatters, gouges, dots, lines and smears can be interpreted as sentences, paragraphs, chapters unfolding to offer a fiercely intense and engaging narrative – each work a complex story with plot and subtexts. Bowen talks about this want to pull the viewer’s eyes in. In his piece entitled “Caribbean Cell,” we are presented with a slice of an organism. Bowen explains that he approached this work “like a doctor in a lab who had just discovered this thing called Caribbean.” He painstakingly produces innumerable marks to create an optical interference pattern where various waves made with ink and acrylic encroach on each other to create regions of construction and destruction. The result is a vibrating hologram, a rich three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface. The piece is an exercise in vision. “I kept wondering if I applied more vision to this thing, what would I end up seeing?” says Bowen as he sheds light on his process.

 

Caribbean Cell by Edward Bowen. Ink/acrylic on paper.

Bowen attunes himself to the endless possibility of forms that can erupt from silence. The “Garden Drawing” is an amalgamation of landscapes, a hybrid form that demands that we twist and refashion our perspective. Made with meditative discipline, it is a schema of interaction, of connection, linking here and there, fusing up with down, joining then and now. It is an alternative architecture of space; a grand view of spatial relationships that is only discernible in mauna, outside the din of superficial, unconscious living where space is made reductive – this is my space and that is your space – and separation reigns.

 

Detail from the Garden Drawing by Edward Bowen. Black ink on paper.

Electric Tree and a detail of the Goddess Meditating by Edward Bowen. Acrylic ink on paper.

Bowen’s body of work is a demonstration of and a call to a heightened awareness. He awakens us to states of being that shimmer and pulsate under our limited radars. The artist draws from the dark matter around him – matter that remains unseen in the everyday shadow of the ego; matter that is made palpable only when decibel levels are reduced and the volume of the ego has been turned down. In mauna, a large world teeming with incredible, mind-bending configurations is unlocked. It is not a silence in which everything is hushed. Rather, it is a silence, which is best perceived as a powerful energy field, a whirlwind of presences where shapes whisper and colours hum. That energy is particularly evident in such artworks as “Electric Tree,” “Goddess Meditating,” “Carnival Babe” and “Structure Beneath Great Jumbie Tree.” Edward Bowen becomes an obeah man with ink, paint and anything else he can put his hands on. He becomes a sorcerer, a wizard who skillfully manipulates that whirlwind or vortex – so much so that he seems to paint himself in the piece entitled, “Wizard Juggling Vortices.” What he has produced in his time over the last few years at his monastery constitutes an outstretched hand from which images have been masterfully conjured out of the material of mauna.

Wizard Juggling Vortices by Edward Bowen. Acrylic inks on paper.

“Paintings from the Monastery, Sans Souci 2009-2012” opened on October 18, 2012 at Medulla Art Gallery, 37 Fitt Street, Woodbrook, Port of Spain, Trinidad. The exhibition runs through November 13.

References

- Bowen, Edward. Personal interview. October 6, 2012.
- Bowen, Edward. Artist’s Talk at Medulla Art Gallery, Woodbrook, Port of Spain, Trinidad. November 7, 2012.
- Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth. New York: Plume, 2005. pp. 30, 54 & 60.
- Tolle, Eckhart. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. Vancouver: Namaste Publishing, 1999. p. 18.

Marsha Pearce
Marsha Pearce

Marsha Pearce is ARC’s Senior Arts Writer and Editor. She holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of the West Indies (UWI) St Augustine Campus, Trinidad. She lectures in the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at UWI and is also a freelance arts writer for the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian newspaper. Pearce is the 2006 Rhodes Trust Rex Nettleford Cultural Studies Fellow.