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David Dodd Lee, Art Editor: There is an audacity in Johnson Bowles feminist mixed media pieces, a kind of entitlement to rudeness, that feels totally earned. Most immediately, my reaction to Bowles’s artworks was one of repulsion, because, as one gazes upon them, recognizing their formal qualities—composed primarily of fabric, paper, and plastic—they seem to be, generally, inert, until, suddenly, they’re not . . . In fact, each piece is a living, breathing, writhing mass. It’s uncanny valley from the get-go. Sure, there is the jarring contrast in which the fabric signals the “grandmotherly,’ in which the expected sense of orderliness and conformity is quickly subsumed by the horror of death (like a dress torn open to reveal squads of maggots retreating from the light). But there is also a boldness in the work that is close to effrontery, and that is part of what makes Bowles’s “assemblages” so startlingly powerful. There is little subtlety here.
David Dodd Lee, cont.: The pieces seethe with violence, a slap in the face to a thousand years of rule by the patriarchy. Bowles does this partly by being as outrageous and suggestive as Courbet, in his “L’Origne du monde,” and Duchamp, in his “Etant donnes” (which Bowles’s pieces most remind me of). Just what kind of unspeakableness has taken place here, where stag beetles and mini-scorpions overwhelm the history of art, as viewed through a tiny peephole? There is a split second in which you think (or I think anyway), Oh, someone has made a beautiful pillow for my comfort! But then you recoil. Bowles has taken what is typically considered feminine (fabric, textiles) and rebranded them. All the while we glimpse shadowy images captured from the history of art—a gasping John the Baptist, for instance—that slowly, quietly, fades into the background. We are voyeurs unto death of the art that used to be.
K. JOHNSON BOWLES has exhibited in more than 80 solo and group exhibitions nationally. Feature articles, essays, and reviews of her work have appeared in 50 publications around the country. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Individual Fellowship and a Houston Center for Photography Fellowship. Recently, she was a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, VA. She received her MFA in photography and painting from Ohio University and BFA in painting from Boston University.