In Memoriam – Dianne Bowen: Remembering a New York City Artist

Written by Kofi Forson

In the introduction to Charles Green’s The Third Hand, Collaboration in Art From Conceptualism To Postmodernism, entitled Collaboration as Symptom, he speaks of artists in their art, “voluntarily placing themselves center stage in self-portraits but also at the margins of all their other works, constructing themselves through brush marks, in signature style, by individual preferences, and through repeated motifs – in short, from the intersection of subjectivity with medium”.

One look at Brooklyn-born artist, Dianne Bowen, known for her installation pieces and work as painter and sculptor in the act of drawing in a video captured by photographer and longtime friend Nikki Johnson, where Dianne, enthralled within a glowing luminescence, is holding an oil stick in her left hand rotating it counter-clockwise. A fit of determined concentration and focus on her face, would have you believe that as an artist she placed herself on the margin of her work.

Dianne Bowen is posing for the camera at her studio.

This unintentional performance is a process by which she created her drawing installations and art pieces, Silver Tongue and Across Your Land, using gouache, light-fast wax pencil, and china marker. Element of the lyrical line foregoes the notion of stagnancy or representation of a solid form as in a portrait. The spiral movement lives off the page into infinity. As an open medium, it is free of limits and boundaries.

There are forces and systems working with and against each other. There’s a similarity and difference. Much of this occurs within the composition. There are diagonal shapes and forms, almost as “space manifests itself as weight on the page”.

The on-sight installations, on the other hand, deal with volume, weight, and space. By design she incorporated the environment whether she was working on the beach in Miami, a garden in Estonia, somewhere in nature upstate or at a gallery in Soho. There’s a cadence flow, universal notion of time and movement represented in a 3-Dimensional form, but also a feeling of transparency and the invisible.

In passing, Dianne endured changing cultural trends in her section of the East Village, smaller galleries struggling to keep open, ongoing trends manifested in differing types of art work displayed at the openings, and influx of younger artists moving into the neighborhood. She witnessed over the years as smaller galleries moved into the Lower East Side and Chinatown redefining how art is presented and packaged, an example of these galleries domesticizing what is art. How the work is processed in the art studio is basically how it’s represented in the art gallery, “fresh from the oven”.

As a self-professed nomad she endured walkabouts through the many ever-changing neighborhoods in the city. Whether as an adventurous chef shopping for specific spices or poultry parts in Harlem, memories of my first visit to her legendary studio on Avenue B when to my surprise, she cooked and served me Ghanaian fried plantains and black-eyed pea stew as well as peanut butter soup, or when she and I went gallery hopping in outer reaches of Brooklyn, or taking part in the Chelsea Thursday night art crawl, her work was conceptually manual, it was of the hands.

Dianne Bowen is sitting with a spread of food at her studio.

This perception is noted in the books she wove together, made sculpture by using guitar wire and found objects. But this is what she brought to cooking as well. These were formations of art, working from a recipe, applying ideas from the color wheel. They were all hands-on organic approach she brought to art.

On social media she posted short edited videos of rain dripping on a window, twigs of a tree branch blowing in the wind, cracks on the sidewalk. These were topographically interpreted as art. They were inventive, spontaneous interventions on the mundane. Dianne was almost curatorially diagramming what would be deemed as epiphanies, art demonstrates, misadventures as in what one would keep in a notebook, more or less self-dialogues, self-interviews, cryptic in their assumption but critical for the artist’s evolution, manipulation of the thought-effect for the betterment of the art process, keyed onto the prime preparation which affords the artist sketches to work from.

Inspected further one would be led to think Dianne was an art detective, an investigator on the art query. Much of this was enacted in our conversations over coffee and cigarettes. Infused by my prior virtual interventions with artists in England as part of the Liverpool Biennial, I soon discovered primary concerns philosophically explored online, originally imagined as conversations on the email. Facebook brought the idea to an open space. It was here Dianne and I reached a more intellectually intimate tone outside of our encounters in cafes and galleries.

Our agenda was to assuage the proclivity for prognostication within the art dynamic. There was more of an opportunity to manage critical thinking. Art Bloggers like Damien Crisp were important as to how language passed through the many thread conversations and on the walls of timelines. He was adept in his research and information on all matters art and politics. Such was the fervency with which Dianne and I started to communicate.

Dianne and I had met years prior at an art opening on the Lower East Side. In a homely and mothered space where I had come to support a friend who had modeled for a photographer whose work was part of the exhibition, Dianne walked up and commented on the very photograph I was admiring. She knew the photographer personally. Her presence within the gallery and familiarity with its patrons angling with chatter, positioning cups of wine were all part of her art design. She had a history here, having lived in the neighborhood ever since the transitioning period between squatter life, art punks and surge in drug and criminal culture and moments when the occasional Uzi fired in the background and windows were opened to blaring sounds of urban pop. The bars soon started closing replaced by banks and Duane Reads.

By now Dianne was on her way to raising her two children Bowen and Daniel. While studying at School of Visual Arts it was clear to her that art was her main focus. She decided to have a family and spend the rest of her life managing an art career. Her Brooklyn pride gave her a business ideal which helped her survive as a single mother, artist on the edge. She gained credibility as money earner, someone who worked for the benefit of furthering her prioritized role as an artist while working as a bartender at The Bitter End on Bleecker Street.

It was all a means to an end, the life riddle for many artists who are best served as functioning artists with a practice rather than slave away at a job they hate. Her marriage to Rein, a dedicated hands-on professional with ambition afforded her a life with some security.

Rein and Dianne are sitting at a garden on Avenue A.

Her children were soon thereafter living away from home in their own relationships. Her days were then spent at the apartment which had also become her working studio. It was here Dianne welcomed me on many different occasions.

We had an uninterrogated art friendship. Rein understood whole-heartedly that Dianne and I had a working art relationship. He neither quibbled nor had any misgivings about me coming over. Somehow I felt Dianne had made it clear to him her life as an artist required other adventures outside of the family. And so my visits were unannounced and official. Memorable times spent with the family were on a night of Christmas Eve when Dianne invited me over to celebrate with Rein and Daniel, on another evening, artist and publisher of Whitehot Magazine, Noah Becker, painter Joe Heaps Nelson and I joined Dianne and Rein for dinner, not to mention those impromptu Sunday afternoons I came over for lunch.

At this time I had moved into the East Village. It accentuated my friendship and art relationship with Dianne. On most Thursday afternoons we made plans to stop by as many art galleries as possible. I would meet Dianne at her studio and hop a train to Chelsea or Brooklyn. It was on these stops I gained an acquaintanceship with other artists on the scene, photographer and curator, Savannah Spirit, artist Heins Kim, sculptor Bernard Klevickas and the many others we met at the openings, get-togethers, and parties.

I was establishing myself as writer for Whitehot Magazine. Noah Becker prioritized my role and included me in many important opportunities which merged his interest in the music of jazz with art. In doing so my life in the art world crossed over my partnership with Dianne as artists and the art journalist lifestyle with Noah Becker. This saw the beginning of my love relationship with video artist Rebecca Goyette and the chance for Dianne and me to collaborate.

The selfie had become a craze. I spent the evenings out with Noah Becker and our entourage taking selfies. Much like Dianne, I was also an avid walker, and on the trips through the East and West Village, Chelsea, Soho and Tribeca, I would stop and prepare a selfie complete with a theme. I then posted them on Facebook. The Facebook community soon became aware of my adventures around the city chronicled in fast paced status updates and theatrical poses presented as selfies.

My intervention on Dianne’s art practice began when I started taking pictures of her with my Nikon, Point and Shoot. Nikki Johnson was the only other photographer Dianne had allowed to photograph her exclusively. The process was difficult at first. Dianne hid her body from the camera. She was uncomfortable, although she was determined to pose for the pictures. We gained momentum when she made it into a presentation of her discomfort with her body. Her poses were abstract, a hand partially covering her face, positioning of her hand as a gesture, a soft smile. On a night at the apartment I presented Rein with a photograph from that session as a Christmas gift. He promptly positioned it on a wall. It was clear to him Dianne was growing into her own confidence, and perhaps I contributed to it.

Our meeting at her studio normally began when she made coffee. We then sat to discussions, sometimes she cooked, but we always spent time rolling cigarettes, smoking them effusively. This ritual played itself out online, on Facebook. She would send me a message and tell me she was putting the kettle on the stove, which was a sign for us to begin corresponding.

This is an image from our Dismember the Night Project.

Our thread poetry slams were originally triggered as works of spontaneity. We used poetry to converse. She would pose a poetic verse or short prose poem and I responded with my very own. These increased to show dimension in language and imagery. Dianne had done the open mic circuit in the past and was a poet in her own right. I’ve been published in different anthologies and have been a life-long poet. Understandably, we both knew what we were doing.

Prior to taking the selfies, Dianne had agreed to help me self-publish a book of photographs from my muse series and poetry inspired by my muses. We met at her studio over the usual coffee and cigarettes, and she helped me edit the poems. When we decided we were done with the editing, and I expected Dianne to walk me through the publishing process, she told me I was on my own. Out of frustration I talked her into doing a book with me. She never wanted to call herself a muse and thoroughly explained to me she wasn’t my muse. We were basically collaborating.

What we did was to take selfies in-between the discussions, coffee, and cigarettes. The selfies intensified when on nights out on the town I photographed her or we would pose for selfies. Our selfie habit grew more inspiring when we started planning them out, thinking of scenes from movies or theater, then performing them as a pose. The images are seemingly heartbreaking and heartfelt as they show promise in a friendship between two artists who had respect for each other.

Upon seeing the selfies, Noah Becker advised me to have an exhibition even if in my apartment.  Dianne then got the inspiration to talk to Steve Cannon at Tribes Gallery. One afternoon she and I walked over to the gallery and presented our idea to Mister Cannon. I had frequented the establishment for poetry readings on a suggestion by Dianne. After discussions with his staff, Steve Cannon gave us a date for the opening of our exhibition.

Dianne was against the title Dismember the Night at first. I art-explained it confidently as a means of an intervention, dismembering portions of the day, the night being the culmination of our time spent together. On the night of October 28, 2011, Dianne Bowen and I had our opening for Dismember the Night at Tribes Gallery.

Once again my art life with Noah Becker and his entourage spilled over to what Dianne and I had entertained as friends and artists. Present at the event were Noah Becker, Joe Heaps Nelson, artist and author Emer Martin, friends of Dianne, my mother and father, Tribes Gallery regulars, and others from the art community. Our performance of our thread slams was photographed by Nikki Johnson.

For the Dismember the Night catalogue introduction, Emer Martin wrote of Dianne Bowen, “A woman shape shifting, different in each image, standing before great bodies of work. Her raw energetic drawings collide as spirals on a massive masculine scale. Her absorption is in her own creation, maternal and rejecting.”

We reprised our performance at SkyLight Gallery in Chelsea curated by Savannah Spirit.

Dianne Bowen, Savannah Spirit and me are standing at Sky Light Gallery in Chelsea.

Dianne Bowen’s work will forever be remembered as reminiscent of artifacts or fossils, rooted in landscape, earth driven works which are relevant in the found objects she used in her sculptures, as well as installations. Something she called the “pinky work”, accentuating the hands on approach to not only digging, clearing space, but sewing, manipulating with fingers to create.

Among her last great pieces of art was the mural on Houston Street and First Avenue. She did further explorations detailing the sight at night and during the day on a video known as Wild is the Air. On one of the edited videos, she recited a brief poem panning the camera from the left to the right. Words in the poem somewhat serve as codes which complement the image of the mural, movement within the video, and the sounds from the neighborhood. The video work serves much like sketching, a means of recording the progress and process as you go along, what she called “a documentary observation component”.

All of this was in keeping with other works of Public Art she had done in the past. I sat with her at 55 Bar listening to blues guitarist Bill Sims. While he played and performed she reacted to his music by drawing and making markings on paper. There was also her large scale video project at bar 2A Lounge called Silence with Storms, a camera projected slide of Dianne Bowen’s drawings onto a side of a brick building across from the bar.

Among her selected exhibitions were Just the Right Amount Of Wrong curated by Lovina Purple, ISE Cultural Foundation, New York, 2014, Something Blue, curated by Jennifer Burbank, Art Space, Connecticut, 2013, Bau 100-1 Invitational, Bau Gallery, Beacon, New York, 2013, That Will Leave A Mark, 55 Mercer Gallery, New York, 2005, A Hard Winter- Retrospective, 1999-2006, AIR Gallery, New York, curated by Kassia Conway, 2005.

Dianne Bowen is standing before her painting at a studio downtown.

Through A/S, Artists Studios and as a member she exhibited at NADA, New York Art Fair. Jill Conner, founder of A/S remembers her fondly.

“She was charming and always laughing – such a light. She pulled everyone together through her own sense of conviction about art and life. She was so strong, so smart, and so wise. I feel so complete having known Dianne”.

In 2014 she had a solo exhibition and residence with Galleria Ninapi in Ravenna, Italy in a show titled, Dimmi Tutto, curated by Chiara Fuschini. She spoke excitedly of driving through Italy, having made a home there and gained respect of many new and ongoing friendships.

Among her influences were Judy Pfaff and Gego. She came about Judy Pfaff while studying at School of Visual Arts. Pfaff’s installation art is one of the greatest imprints on what Dianne Bowen did with her very own installation pieces. Artist and sculptor Gego’s line drawings had a crucial effect on the well-represented images in Dianne’s hand-made books and sketches.

Dianne Bowen, Clockwork Edie, D Bow, as she was fondly known will be missed at the art openings city-wide. Her vivacity, quick with a smile and assurance, willing to offer comment or advice, are all forthcoming remarks shared by many artists, friends, and family members.

Times in history when male and female partnerships broaden into art collaborations, they seldom see a non-love and romantic misadventure. Personally, Dianne Bowen was my friend and art collaborator.

In Charles Green’s The Third Hand, he speaks on artistic collaborations as “a telescope onto a larger study: that of a shift to a new understanding of artistic identity that emerged from modernist notions of artistic work — both radical and conservative — and progressed toward alternative and quite extreme authorial models, a long way from the simple paradigm of the single lone artistic originator”.

The innocence and courage we fused into dialoguing as an art quest, and non-conventionally for entertainment was all a tribute to our humanness and refined responsibility.

Ours was a mark of reserved respect known to us by what friends have said, honor within the art community, how I will always remember Dianne, seeing her at a group show featuring Nikki Johnson’s photographs where I saw Dianne so happy to see me.

In her white blouse and overlapping black vest she reminded me of Alex from A Clockwork Orange, defiant in her artness, Brooklyn tough, charismatic, walked circles around most in any neighborhood at any time. And indeed she was the gift from an imagined Art God, an Edie Sedgwick, hence the name Clockwork Edie.

Dianne Bowen, like a rare bird, has flown the cage.

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