Fowler’s “Into Existence” exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) consists of four large-scale, mixed-media works echoing words of encouragement from his grandmother: “You need to speak it into existence.”
The recipient of SAM’s 2019 Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence Prize, which is awarded biannually to an early-career Black artist, Fowler finds that the idea of speaking things into existence is a solution to what he’s going through in life.
“Everyone that I paint, I usually know,” Fowler said.
In the two-sided medallion titled “Debo Free” positioned at the exhibition’s entrance, Fowler tries to liberate his incarcerated friend by showing that Debo is held by chains on one side and is free on the other.
“I want people to know what’s going on at the moment, so that’s the current state,” Fowler said. “The speaking into existence is like the future.”
Fowler’s compositional cues and subject matter usually come from images he can relate to at the time.
“I went to Yale and it felt like being in a privileged place, and I didn’t grow up like that at all — come from downtown St. Louis,” Fowler said. “I just felt like a pirate, you know, so I started painting pirates and looking up pirate paintings, and stuff like that for composition.”
“Jacob Lawrence has definitely inspired me a lot,” Fowler said. “I feel like I channel a lot of things that he channeled.”
Fowler discovered Lawrence’s work through “The Migration Series,” where Lawrence portrays the Great Migration — the movement of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North following World War I.
“It was just really cool to see and document people migrating across the country because I’m a big product of that,” Fowler said. “I’m always trying to migrate my family from St. Louis to L.A.”
“Into Existence” is a manifestation of movement. By drawing elements from assemblage and collage, Fowler describes the places and energies that surround him.
“I do a lot of traveling. I bounce around and I’m never really just set in one studio, one space,” Fowler said. “I’ll work on something in L.A. and then I end up somehow, someway working on it in St. Louis, and then somehow, someway I finish it in Seattle.”
Fowler said that the materials he finds all have energy to them, whether that be physical energy or spiritual energy. They carry something that’s unspeakable and help him tell his truth.
The ideas that he’s working to manifest in these works are extremely personal, said Carrie Dedon, the SAM assistant curator of modern and contemporary art. “They’re things like, ‘I want to spend more time with my family; I want my friend to overcome this bad situation; I want my business to take off.’
“Very personal, but also really universal things that everybody can understand and wishes for in their own lives as well,” Dedon said.
This exhibit shows how art can be found and made from everything around you, said Megan Bortle, a SAM visitor who was most interested in Fowler’s use of deconstructed everyday objects.
These are materials that Fowler is not buying new, Dedon said. “I think he’s really drawn to objects that bear some kind of history of use.”
They are things that have their own histories, things that Fowler gets from Craigslist or finds on the streets, things lying around in studios.
“I just want you to feel that human in it,” Fowler said. “Feel my hand in it, feel where I’ve been in it, besides the subject matter.”
Fowler doesn’t want to be put in a box as an artist. He feels that categories can “water down the human in us,” so he started depicting himself as a mirror character — a reflection of himself, his surroundings and his viewers.
“It’s basically also, to me, like a feeling of God,” Fowler said.
“I’m having these experiences to share with others, you know,” Fowler said. “So whether it’s good, bad or ugly — I feel these experiences I’m having are not just for myself.”
It became important, said Fowler, to depict himself as a mirror and have others see themselves within him as his experiences come to light.
“Everybody who will come to this show will feel that sort of radical optimism and hope and wishfulness for a future that everybody can relate to, even though he’s drawing very personally on his own goals,” Dedon said.
“Debo Free” encapsulates an enlarged form of a chain worn by members of Death Row, a hip-hop group from the ’90s, demonstrating that music plays a significant part in how Fowler communicates and navigates the world as a visual hip-hop artist.
“The art of hip-hop is making something out of nothing, you know; it’s the whole thing behind the culture,” Fowler said. “I feel like I try to do that as much as possible.”
Fowler said he treats his process like the intuitive sounds and movements in jazz.
“It’s like a lot of random sounds put together to make something, you know,” Fowler said. “A lot of random moves put together to make something, too.”
Fowler’s exhibits feel more like albums to him. Each piece feels like a different song.
“I just love music — it’s like it moves me,” Fowler said. “If it’s quiet, it kills me.”
Read the full Feb. 5-11 issue.
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