The Enigmatic Paintings of Steven McCowan

As the repositories of pictorial ideas carried to a sardonic extreme, the peculiar personalities who occupy the enigmatic paintings of Steven McCowan confront the viewer with masked faces and bizarre actions. Their colors, although straight from the tube, have a strong propensity to take on artificial tinges that tend to establish a protective barrier between the artist who created them and the world around him. The orchestration of their strange chromatic harmonies also inhibits any overt references to the natural world, thus transcending a merely pictorial interpretation. Undoubtedly, painting for Steven McCowan is an independent means of expression and exploration; its essence revealed through odd figurations and their unusual activities, and a unique visual language of personal symbols.

The restless, searching style of painting practiced by Steven McCowan is dependent on a steady rhythmic brushwork that is applied to match the substance of his imagery. The subjects may appear humorous on the surface, but closer examination reveals an edge to their humor, a wit that is far more sardonic than comic.   The characters exist in a constant state of interaction, while apparently isolated, lending an air of tension to their arrangements.   To create this tension, the mechanics of his compositions are deliberately emphasized, with foreground and background bound together to give his characters a confrontational, and disturbing, power. Bold areas of color are brought together to describe and locate his figures and give his themes a particular resonance. The effect of color, placed directly without preliminary drawing so areas of brushwork define edges, emphasizes the grotesque almost to the point of caricature. So, despite their sense of wit and humor, his works are tinged with the satire that revolves around his unique cast of characters.

Bound by color and indulging their passions and peculiarities, the personalities that inhabit the works of Steven McCowan soon reveal that they cavort in an environment of the imagination, but informed by life’s experiences. Perhaps inspired by the cultural legacy and rich mythology of his Scottish heritage, he has drawn from its complexities the ability to create his own highly effective modern and personal symbols. A unique visual language accompanies the exploits of his characters and reappears often and recognizably to the inquisitive viewer. Masks, religious symbols, animals, the physically deformed, and emotionally isolated contribute to the works’ intricacies and assist in the decipherment of their meaning.

Since the second decade of the twentieth century saw the highly charged figurations and jarring contrasts that were representative of the German Expressionists, few artists have attempted to so intensify humanity’s realization of itself. Steven McCowan works with the same passionate commitment to figuration as a mode of powerful expression. Whether his purpose is one of wry commentary or insightful psychological exploration, his paintings are penetrating and provocative. Through the forced distortion of natural forms and a direct and primitive vigor of execution, Steven McCowan transforms his subjects into new levels of meaning. Intimate friends and family join saints and heroes, the abject and the condemned, the ironic and absurd. Few can escape his cynical eye and acerbic brush. Crammed together or isolated in space, his figures are pushed to the point of psychological distress or comic relief. Masked by the false bravado of a painted face, they endure the vagaries of life, hidden from the reality of its very meaning. In fact, the mask becomes the reality and involves the viewers in a strange communion of fantasy further exacerbated by the dissonance of color and composition.

 

Although Mr. McCowan says that he often feels very much like the lead in a Kafka story and has developed an imaginary life and people to survive, it is evident that he has painted their existence into a new visual reality. He himself does not appear to be fraught with the anxieties of modern life that his characters endure. That may only be a front that one sees, while actual reality is revealed through the people in his paintings. As they engage in activities symptomatic of the world’s many delusions, one can not help but wonder, who are they and why are they behaving in this manner? Are these masked, anonymous and faceless personalities evidence of the indifference, stupidity and venality of the modern world? Is he forcing his own cynical invective on the protagonists of his paintings or is he merely amusing himself at their expense? Such questions accompany Steven McCowan’s perplexing images and make them even more fascinating. The viewer is invited to enter his world and, if one dares, participate in its lunacy.

Carol Damian Ph.D.

Florida International University

Steven McCowan : L’inssonadable abyme de l’etre

Fantomes dans une architectue methaphysique. Scenarios fantasmatiques, reveries sur la

“comedie humaine “ dans le sens qui l’a fait Balzac en litterature. La peinture de Steven McCowan devienne une introspection philosophysique et visuel sur les lieux de l’homme, sa vie et son existence critique.

Chaque tableau monstre une passage theatrale et abysale sur la condition humaine. Silencieuse, la multitude, derriere sa masquerade offre sa pudeur, sa suffrance, sa picardie, son ironie, son allure, son inutilite, son malheur. Une rien dans sa proffonde blessure. C’est la mensonge qui peu a s’efface des ceux visages. Une metareelle cruciale qui, dans son abstrait sonorite obscure, emerge.

Il y a une combinasion des couleurs expressionistes acueillantes des formes humaines brissees et enigmatiques; spectrales et tranhumaines, qui McCowan connote. Des parures de l’etre en dissonance avec soi meme. Des touches d’une palette energetique, et des traits de design de fortes   contours deminent la cadence imperceptible de la composition multilinear. Il y a un vertige de curves et de rectilignes qui se entrecroissent dans des objets et des espaces symboliques qui se repentent dans l’ ensamble pictural : des petits trains de jouet, des fenetres rondes, des habitations fermees commie de  “huis clos”   , des espaces ouverts et desertiques, des socialite mirroir de notre contemporaneite. Personnages ramasses par la vie dans sa substance phenomenologique ; clowns d’une conte de fee grotesque.

L’ artiste construit l’ opera de la vie dans ses tableux. Son travail est une respiration de l’humain dans son inssovdable aparence. C’rest le monde a l’infini, entre la vie et la mort. Le monde en chair, en contingence avec son infortune. McCowan, en creant ses personnages hallucines, topologies de notre temps, nous amenne au ressouce de l’espirituel, a l’interior de soi meme, au suspens de ses sentiments. Il confronte dans œuvre la passion et la lumiere de notre societe.

Dr. Milagros Bello

Historian de l ‘Art-Critique d’Art, Membre de l’Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art( A.I.C.A.-PARIS)

Contemporary art has two ways of dealing with reality:

either by denying its existence or by confronting it. The first one led to abstractionism and later on to different forms of conceptualism and minimalism. In general terms, the second began by deconstructing its different elements, by reproducing in terms of dreams and desires its hidden side or by representing its tragic, grotesque or even comic condition. Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism, respectively, correspond to these three approaches to reality. While the Surrealists maintained vis a vis the act of painting an equivocal attitude corresponding more to their aim of creating a poetical environment above and beyond any purely pictorial preoccupation, the Expressionists dealt head on with the materials of their art. Inheritors in that sense of the Renaissance, the Expressionists had to face reality in all its complexity, including their own disturbing inner visions. Far from escaping the intensity of human feelings that arouse from daily experiences in life, the Expressionists tried to face them in their art with strong shapes and colors. In the last instance the Expressionists revolted against reality while accepting the inevitability of its existence. It is in that context that I would like to place Steven McCowan’s art.

The first impression that I received when I walked into the rooms filled with McCowan’s paintings was of listening to an orchestral crescendo. The mechanics that made possible the composition of such an avalanche of forms and colors were translated in terms of rich musical sonorities. Then came the second stage where as any viewer I began to sort out certain details until finally I was able to explore some of his paintings. But before it was the spirit of Ensor that I had to invoke. Ensor was a *strange painter indeed. His masquerades belonged to a visionary tradition, that of the German and Swiss engravers of the Renaissance and to the apocalyptical visions of Bosch or Brueghel. On the other hand, the ‘’busy’’ elements that their Italian counterparts utilized as an indispensable component of their narrative found their way in the mottled compositions of the Belgian master. It was Ensor, then, who gave me the key to Steven McCowan’s world. Once I began to venture into his paintings others came to my aid. Bacon no doubt, and Jawlensky, Beckman also appeared and Goya, the Goya of the grotesque imagery of his ‘’Capri- ‘’ chos’’, ‘’Desastres de la Guerra’’ or his black paintings. All of these names are part of what I will like to call ‘’magical encounters’’. It has less to do with the obvious influences (which have little or no interest to me) than with what the philosopher Fourier called ‘’the passionate attraction’’ between a spirit that seeks and the objects of his search. McCowan, then, has managed to create around him a net of references that can be useful for the art critic but misleading at the same time if they are not taken as they are: ‘’magical encounters’’. With this in mind lets now proceed to ‘’deconstruct’’ the main elements that in my opinion bind together McCowan’s paintings.

THE HUMOROUS ELEMENT

One of the most fundamental expressions of human emotions is to face the mysteries of life with a sense of humor. The Surrealists (Andre Breton in particular in his famous anthology) invented the term ‘’Black Humor’’ to go even further in their exploration of the human condition. Without being a Surrealist, Steven P. McCowan creates in his paintings an environment where he increasingly represents situations charged with black humor. In his homage to Ensor, ‘’The Entry of Christ Into Disney World’’, the painter creates a setting where Christ is surrounded by circus-like characters. Some of them remind us of Mickey Mouse , one holds in his right hand the penis of a figure next to Christ apparently dressed with a tutu, another holds his in front of an usher. Two acrobats   (one of them with a mask that suggests the devices used by the schizophrenic Aldous Wolffli in his paintings) balance from the ceiling while three characters with their arms raised smiles at the whole scene. Facing Christ the rest of the assisting public seated in two rows one of the Mickey Mouse characters looking backward-watches the scene. Under one of the acrobats a hybrid figure (taken probably from Assyrian imagery) stands on top of a balcony. Like all of McCowan’s paintings the ‘’Entry of Christ into Disney World’’ is a busy one. Painted with a rich palette, the role of Christ in this painting underlines the desire of the artist to create an equivocal situation, a situation that furnish an atmosphere of black humor. The contrast between the figures with their gestures and grotesque appearances is a truly hallucinatory vision not of the beauty of mankind but of its fascination with the most obscure side of its soul. It is a major premise with the Expressionists to polarize their scenarios with contrasting situations, thus providing an atmosphere where the opposite may occur: we cry and laugh simultaneously in front of their paintings. Mc Cowan’s visions of excess are just that: provocations or better still transgressions that push us to the limits.

THE GROTESQUE ELEMENT

Ever since the publication of Mikhail Bakhtin’s classic study on ‘’Rabelais and his World’’ the ‘’grotesque’’ have acquired an important status in the cultural panorama of our time. Dealing with the Romantic sense of the grotesque Bakhtin points out that ‘’Something frightening is revealed in that which was habitual and secure’’ while ‘’the medieval and Renaissance folk culture was familiar with the element of terror only as represented by comic monsters, who were defeated by laughter.’’ (1). The ritual spectacles of McCowan’s paintings seem to point into that direction, a direction where the ‘’grotesque in art is related to the paradox in logic. At first glance, the grotesque is merely witty and amusing but it contains great potentialities’’ (2) If we examine the different elements that populate McCowan’s nightmarish paintings we could arrive at the following identical conclusions:

First Conclusion: ‘’Something frightening is revealed’ In the ‘’Entry of Christ’’ what is revealed is a transgressive interpretation of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. Like its famous source of inspiration, Ensor’s ‘’Entry of Christ in Bruxelles’’ the use of weirdly deformed figures could be interpreted as a blasphemy against the Son of God. We may recall that Veroneses two versions of the Last Supper were deemed blasphemous by scandalized cardinals who tried to censor them. A fundamentalist believer will be frightened by this rendition of the New Testament. Certainly he or she would repel it as a diabolical manifestation thus creating a dramatic communication between him or her and the painting. The ‘’habitual’’ and the ‘’secure’’ are then deprived of their logical substance and replaced by the insecurity of having to deal with a grotesque Christ almost to the point of caricature.

Second conclusion: Mc Cowan’s elements of terror. In paintings such as ‘’Man in a Red Suit’’ a simian figure showing his penis is seated among various characters, one of them covering his nose with one of his hands while pointing with the other at an unknown direction. Two of the characters seem to be immersed in a profound conversation judging by the intense look on the face of one of the figures. The other two in the foreground are not connected with the others. The first looks amazed by something and the other with his hands covering his mouth looks upwards. In the middle of the whole scenery presides a seated figure with his faced blurred and a heart painted over his clothes. What concerns us here is the presence of the simian figure that, like a collage, is inserted in the scenario. His presence could be taken as a comic attempt by the artist to disrupt a narrative between the other characters in the painting. By doing so he places a uncanny image offsetting the rest of the composition thus providing the viewer with an element of laughter. Here again, laughter is used as a device to unleash an uneasy feeling of complicity with the artist’s theatrical renditions. Looking at an album of Dianne Arbus photographs I experience the same sensation. Her extreme renditions of deformed people make us laugh while we reject them at the same time. We run from her monsters but we can’t help feeling a strange attraction towards them. Laughter in that context masks our sense of guilt.

Mc Cowan’s views of the absurd like Samuel Beckett or Franz Kafka’s own visions are part of a radical attempt to create new forms of identifying some of our most unspeakable nightmares. Kafka gave a body to one of them: a repugnant bug, while Beckett created his clownish characters always waiting for what it appears to be the Supreme Being of all monsters: Godot. Both writers create absurd interpretations by paradoxically making them look as real. Mc Cowan’s paintings convey in his ‘’grotesquerie’’ a parade of human beings or hybrids that remind us constantly of the sharp contrasts that plague our existence. In one of his paintings untitled ‘’The Faster the Parade the Faster I Bang The Symbols’,’ we experience the sensation that the jester in the foreground is ready to jump outside of the painting in order to torment us. His terrible look seems to confirm our fear.

Third conclusion:   “The elements of terror’’. The Expressionist painters liked to emphasize the elements of the grotesque and the terror provoke by the use of masks. The mask has been and instrument of magical powers in all ancient cultures. By masking himself the Shaman or the Priest assumed supernatural powers. Therefore the mask was an object only to be used by the initiates. The Twentieth Century painters ‘’tired of the ancient world’’ as the poet Guillaume Apollinaire said in his famous poem/manifesto ‘’Zone’’ broke with the Greco-Roman tradition by incorporating those primitive objects in their paintings. But if Pablo Picasso used them as a purely pictorial device or the Surrealists Wifredo Lam or Victor Brauner as poetical instruments, the Expressionists saw in the mask a powerful means of conveying another kind of message. In many of their paintings the Expressionists transformed the human face into a mask. By doing so the altered details of the face transmitted a sense of terror in the same way that in films like Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde the face of Spencer Tracy began to acquire the same qualities. It is that moment, when the human face loses his or her identity by becoming a mirror of the inner self that the powers of terror are unleashed. The mask becomes not a mere aesthetical object like in Picasso’s ‘’Demoiselles de Avignon’’ but a ‘’sign’’ in its most profound meaning. McCowan’s use of masks follows this trend by evoking in his theatrical renditions what we may call ‘’the poetics of terror’’.

 

THE ELEMENTS OF THE INNER SELF

Like the Surrealists, McCowan’s makes use of his dreams, but unlike them he is not interested in creating a dreamscape in the manner of a Dali, Tanguy or Max Ernst. McCowan’s dreams are more real in the sense that he limits himself to juxtapose in his paintings some of its main components. These components are intrinsically linked to icons of his youth: toys such as soldiers or trains. Another component is the male sexual organ, treated in my opinion as a toy. But toys are part of a complex world where the child relates to reality in a dream-like dimension. When a child plays he or she also dreams and when we dream we play with images that appear without any apparent control. In any case life is interpreted as a playground where anything can happen.

McCowan’s paintings even those with more dramatic overtones, possess a tendency to bypass reality in favor of a more lucid interpretation of it. What happens in reality is what most of his paintings makes evident: namely that life has an irresistible tendency of becoming a circus, a tragic one granted, but a circus nonetheless. The Expressionist painters, such as Rouault were attracted by this fact while McCowan went even further bringing back his memories, his fears and his dreams into the spectacle of his canvases. The presence of the penis is for example emblematic of his proclivity for play. Far from becoming a symbol of male power, the penis is treated as a toy that one can ‘’play’’ with, as masturbation is often referred to.

Dreams and Play are basic components of McCowan’s visions of things. His ‘’totems’’ and ‘’taboos’’ are well represented in the narrative of his paintings where nothing is left out. On the contrary, if we may regard some of his compositions as overcrowded is because the artist himself has been eager to relate the richness of his visions without making any concessions to certain aesthetical values. Furthermore he is ready to transgress them in favor of authenticity.

FINAL COMMENTS

For Steven McCowan, Expressionism has been a means of providing a suitable technique. The bold use of color and brushstrokes, the distribution of the figures in the composition, the imagery (some of them basic in other Expressionists such as Christ, clowns, the use of masks etc.) all are part of the main ingredients of his paintings. At the beginning of this essay I mentioned the first impression that I received from his paintings ‘’that of an orchestral crescendo’’. I will be more precise: facing McCowan’s canvases I hear the music of Richard Strauss. The histrionics and carnivalesque atmosphere of his ‘’Till Eulespingel’’, the patheticism of his ‘’Death and Transfiguration’’, the colors of his sensual ‘’Salome’s dances’’ or the dramaticism of ‘’Also Sprach Zarathustra’’, together produce the special effects of a crescendo that continues in each one of his paintings as a link between them. From that point of view this artist expressionism has, in my opinion, a musical value. McCowan’s crafty use of color is the result of working with it in the same manner as a composer uses his notation, thus giving to their respective works the solidity of an architectural structure in the same way as the ancients define it as ‘’frozen music’’.

Miami Herald