John Armstrong

Peter Bowyer
Further Arrangement
The Power Plant, Toronto

Further Arrangement proposes quizzical views of contemporary urban life executed in an illustrative deadpan. A happy marriage of Koyaanisquatsi and New Yorker cartoons might best describe these drawings and paintings. The Power Plant’s upstairs gallery opens onto a cluster of drawings encased in asymmetric porthole-like, galvanized steel frames; they appear as so many speech balloons spread along the walls. The drawings record the aporia and small dramas of the everyday in Bowyer's Metropolis. The characters, very often besuited men, travel through an underground tunnel on a moving sidewalk, excavate a suburban backyard pool, or are left, bound and gagged, in an executive suite — among other things. But the staging is as much the protagonist as the figures.

The ever-so-modern architectural environment is overwhelming: interior spaces are vast or located on the abundantly fenestrated uppermost floors of a skyscraper; the outdoors is populated with an ennui of ex/urban buildings. Identifiable examples of modernist painting, sculpture and furniture are depicted as mute contributors to interior decorative ensembles. Mirrors, glass dividing walls, computer monitors, occluded windows, telescopes and binoculars are ever-present. The urban ideal predicted in modernist art and architecture is here, at best, benign Orwellian and, at worst, a panoptic delirium.

Despite the indifference of the environment there appears to be very little weltschmerz in evidence. The good citizens engage in simple acts of kindness, stop to ponder art, or simply get on with things. There is a fundamental humanity here. In the exhibition broadsheet, curator Gregory Saltzman cites Dickens's humour and didacticism as a possible parallel. Daumier also comes to mind. But unlike these nineteenth-century precedents, Bowyer does not permit us any intimacy with his subjects. There is no privacy, few personal effects (letters, ashtrays, clothing lying about), very little personal life. The viewer becomes one with an emphatically distanced, all-seeing narrator, who, in the case of the drawings, seems to hover at about the level of a video security camera. Following this analogy, a wall of drawings becomes a wall of monitors. The viewer might then become aware of, and even anxious about, surveillance, on behalf of Bowyer's unwitting characters.

At the end of a wide hall in which the drawings hang, the gallery opens up into a square exhibition space containing two floor-to-ceiling, painted city panoramas. The viewer now explicitly becomes the perspectival subject, surveying neatly evacuated urban landscapes through these paintings-as-picture-windows and (potentially) even sitting down at the two sculptural, human-scale patio tables placed in front of the paintings. The condition of displaced subjectivity is thoroughgoing, and further extends to the facture of these works. Bowyer's gestures are not subjective indexes: the drawn lines are economic, reticent; the paintings exhibit all the expressive bravura of an Etch-A-Sketch; and the galvanized steel patio tables have the well-crafted anonymity of a 1950s Do-It-Yourself project. What all this points to is a poignant stylelessness that provides contemporaneity with a retrospective cast, a sneaky visioning of a perpetual nostalgia that extends itself endlessly into the future.

C Magazine 47, Fall 1995