A Colossal Place of Being: A Q&A with Claire Cowie
Claire Cowie. TOP: Stranded Ship, 2011 | Fabric, foam, gesso, sumi color, asphaltum, 16 x 42 x 42 inches. BOTTOM: (detail) panel 3, Dead Reckoning, 2010 | Gouache, acrylic, watercolor, India ink, and collage on paper, 100 x 90 inches. Courtesy James Harris Gallery, Seattle.
Claire Cowie’s colossal multi-panel work on paper, Dead Reckoning, turns the smallest of gallery spaces into a deceptively vast environment. The artist’s new show at Seattle’s James Harris Gallery contains only a handful of works: a twelve-panel painting, acrylic and collage works, and several thematically tied sculptures and small works on paper. Each piece features heavily layered compositions of imagery, techniques, and materials that coalesce into an immersive, physical experience for the viewer. I caught up with the artist to discuss this elaborate, new work more intimately. —Erin Langner, Seattle contributor
Claire Cowie, Dead Reckoning, 2010 | Gouache, acrylic, watercolor, India ink, and collage on paper, 12 panels, 100 x 90 inches. Courtesy James Harris Gallery, Seattle.
EL: The last exhibition of your work in Seattle, Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth (2009), integrated ten panels of paper that darkly referenced the Book of Revelation. The heart of Dead Reckoning is again a multi-panel piece, but one in which bright accents of gouache, acrylic, and collage create a more whimsical aesthetic. How did the transition between these two bodies of work come about?
CC: Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth was a series of India ink drawings, and prior to that, I also had an installation titled 12 Views (2008), a grouping of 12 sumi color drawings. 12 Views led to the new piece, as it hung in a continuous circle around the gallery and intended to read as one work.
I believe that all meaning is the meaning we make, rather than inherent or even found meaning. Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth addressed the difficulty in coming to terms with this when finding one's place in a time of tragedy. Dead Reckoning is more about mapping one's ever-shifting place: finding resting points, making discoveries, recognizing accidents and recording the process.
(detail) panel 2, Dead Reckoning, 2010
Were specific physical places you experienced incorporated into Dead Reckoning, or is its place a more purely psychological one?
I am interested in how our mental state affects our sense of physical place. I have a terrible memory and problems with my eyesight; I also have several relatives with dementia. I am intrigued by how these things affect our sense of age and time, how they cause scale-shifting, repetition. Things change as they are re-experienced, remembered and recorded; we have all had the experience of remembering the photograph in place of the event.
...The answer to your question is somewhere in the middle; the places don't exist in the actual forms of the work, but Dead Reckoning is built out of places I've been. Many of the forms reference photographs I took, but interpreting the drawings is a bit like decoding dreams: better experienced than described.
(detail) panel 8, Dead Reckoning, 2010
The range of techniques and collaged objects integrated within the new work offer a very physical representation of an otherwise esoteric mental composition. What was the impetus behind the specific mediums you selected for Dead Reckoning?
Watercolor and ink have a beautiful way of limiting one's control, so there are areas in the work I have left intentionally awkward or undeveloped. Overall, I also wanted more control and an ability to change the piece as I worked, so I went through dramatically different stages. Collage and acrylic painting allow for that kind of shifting.
I began the work with a very open system, relying heavily on reference materials and my sketchbook, which is largely a journal and scrapbook. I keep older prints, drawings, and pieces of fabric at arm's reach. Most materials are recycled through my studio over the years. Initially, I added anything I thought might be relevant. Later, I edited heavily as most decisions became more intuitive and formally-based. Ultimately, I tried to make pathways through the piece with line, color, contrast and repetition.
Claire Cowie, Landmark No. 2, 2011 | Fabric, foam, gesso, sumi color, asphaltum, India ink, wire, 11 x 9 x 11 inches. Image courtesy of James Harris Gallery, Seattle.
The spatial positioning of Dead Reckoning and the surrounding three-dimensional works in the gallery relate to the navigational process of Dead Reckoning’s title. How did you envision the dialogue between these works?
The sculpture Stranded Ship was nearly completed before I began the 12-panel drawing. I was thinking about Ernest Shackleton, the Endurance expedition, and Christopher Columbus– voyages of amazing discovery that did not always result in the initial goal. I wanted an image of a ship simultaneously stranded and at sea, mid-journey. Ships surrounded by the sea always appear stranded, in a sense. I have no idea how to navigate water; it seems vastly open, at once glorious and frightening. I like this image as a metaphor for trying to understand one’s place of being. We can calculate physical position, particularly in relation to other things and people, but what does that really mean about where and who we are in a spiritual or emotional sense?
Positioning also becomes relevant to the viewer experiencing Dead Reckoning. Its scale and grid structure force some images to take precedence within the immediate field of vision, while those outside the natural sightline receive less attention. What was your navigational process in creating the structure and placement of the individual paintings within the work?
This is a big part of the experience of both the making and viewing of the work. It was hung at the same height in my studio as I created it. I started with the middle two rows, which became dominant panels. Generally, everyone will be of a height to focus on those two rows.
(detail) panel 5, Dead Reckoning, 2010
Panel #5 became busy and full very quickly; everything branched out from there. The top row became a kind of sky and the bottom row became an underground. Near the end, I cut away almost all contents from panel #5, leaving only the two windows with the woman in a chair and the hand holding part of a paper. The removed portions became most of panel #3, and I used the newly open space in #5 to add linear connections; pathways that serve as arteries to the rest of the piece.
Although individual figures within Dead Reckoning have finite borders and forms, the work’s overall organic shape begs the question of whether there could be more happening within the imagined space you created. Were you ever tempted to expand the painting into a larger form?
The piece was designed to work in the particular gallery for James Harris, as that was the opportunity at hand. However, I could see it, or another piece like it, expanding to fit a much larger space.
Filling the existing panels with more information was also something I went back and forth about. There are many hidden or obscured moments, such as the alien in the window in panel #8 and a sort of reverse peeping-tom snooping out the window in panel #4. Most of the action is confined within the window spaces, a formal device I used to explore the relationship between things meant to be seen and those intended to be hidden. I toyed with making that action even denser, with more narrative. Perhaps this will manifest in a future work. For me, the current form was already a big push towards greater density and layering, so we'll see what comes next.
Claire Cowie: Works on Paper is on view at James Harris Gallery until April 2.
Erin Langner is a writer based in Seattle and is Adult Public Programs Coordinator at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM).