Encounter: Frank Bowling

Many of my childhood memories seem to be located in the back of whichever second hand car my parents were driving at the time. Crushed between the crisp exterior of a dog-eared Sainsbury’s bag for life, laden with breadsticks, Braeburn apples and a multipack of iced gems, my brother and I would gaze out the window, shouting various innocuous statements about the surroundings to our somewhat bemused parents. A harmonious setting until someone (my brother) would slide his sweaty little calf over the pre-established half way line, demarcated by the Sainsbury’s bag. At that point, all hell would break loose. Up until the 13th sibling argument that week, there was a sense of calm that I would feel in scenes like this. Yet this was most acutely felt when a thunderstorm engrossed the skies, changing the light to flat grey. The surroundings, that had previously sparked familial conversation, to a 2D shadow of their former enigmatic selves. A drop in the temperature could be felt, as one parent would mumble, ‘oh it looks like a storm is coming’, whilst the other cranked the heating to maximum, the sound of an exhausted tinny fan following with its soggy expulsions of heat filling the car. 

It was when the first few splatters of rain hit the roof, making their descent down the already misted windows, that a feeling for which I have never known the word until now, would slowly seep in, as if a by-product of the thunderstorm itself. 

Chrysalism: the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm. 

It was this feeling, in that moment, and moments similar, which I found so calming. As the windows became greyer, richly opaque with the fug of the heating, misting the harsh red, amber and green beams of the traffic lights, I felt the most safe, most still and most calm. 

I have only experienced this feeling when in transitionary states. Either in the car on a seemingly never-ending journey or when camping, another childhood pastime. Perhaps there is something about the immediacy of enclosed surroundings, a car or tent, that does not have the permanence and grandeur of a house. Something within the fragility of this cocoon, simultaneously making you feel warmly coddled and acutely aware of your closeness to the extremities, teetering on the threshold between safety and the volatility of nature.

It was in these moments that a feeling of warmth flooded through me. Administered perhaps by the exhausted heating system, whirring at full pelt, clamming my bare child’s legs, a silver line of sweat forming in the creases of my doughy thigh folds. Yet I think it was more than this. A feeling, not dissimilar but not quite the same, to one I have only recently shared with a few people. This is of a warm sensation tingling the top of your scalp, oozing gently down the back of your head, trickling over the peaks of your shoulders, to form a warm gooey sediment in the middle of your chest, in a space which seems formed only momentarily for this specific feeling. This experience occurs, for me at least, when a person helps me, offers up a piece or advice or information in the most soothing yet sincere way. At this moment, it feels I am simultaneously aware of every fibre of my being, the enormity and possibility of every feeling that can be contained in one fleshy vessel, yet also how minuscule I am in the presence of something unfathomably greater. 

Raining Down South by Frank Bowling in Tate Britain Exhibition 31st May – 26th August 2019

Chrysalism, emanated through the piece ‘Raining Down South’ by Frank Bowling. I stood in front of it, trying to breathe in every possible bit of it, savouring this feeling which I know from my childhood, is fleeting. It was something in the light, the bright grey light spilling through the shifting outlines of South America, that in that moment, seemed to float across the canvas like directionless clouds. The neon colours, so typical to Bowling’s early work, muted, as if trying with all their might to pierce through the fog, the traffic light beams misting their way through the windscreen. The faint lines that ran down the canvas mimicking the rivulets of rain I would chase with my sweaty fingers as a child, leaving smeary stains across the windows. Smears which I would later be ordered to wipe away but not before I had written ‘i hate u mum’ in the centre of the glass. Yet what took me the most, was the brightest light in the top left corner, ironically overshadowing the angular disjointed darkness that lay in front of it. It was as if that tiny corner was a cross section of the sun piercing through the clouds, that had been transposed onto the canvas, letting you know that the storm was almost over. 

Transitionary states are an essential part of Bowling’s work. Born in Guyana, then named British Guiana, Bowling moved to London in 1934, studying at Royal College of Art in 1959; his early life started with transition and this imbues so many of his works. The map paintings explore this global transition through placement and displacement of individuals, both countries and their people dislocated from land. In ‘Raining Down South’, the map of South America stencilled onto canvas, floats divorced from its surrounding countries, suspended in transition, floating like a cloud. The feeling of chrysalism that transported me back to my experience of transition, weathering the storm, should not be likened to the transition investigated through the lens of the map paintings. The experience of transition is myriad, the spectrum of comfort to discomfort apparent through difference. Yet, the unpredictability within a storm was present in ‘Raining Down South’. The feeling of tension and possibility all consuming. I found myself immersed in the act of looking to the sky, waiting for the change, transported back to childhood. 

It was as I stood in front of this work that this feeling of amniotic tranquility spilled over me, transfixed by the light permeating through the piece yet also swimming in the nostalgia of my happy yet disgruntled car journeys as a child. I, like the feeling, existed in in a transitionary state, occupying both memory and gallery, orbiting around the work like the directionless clouds I envisioned within it. I wonder if this feeling came to me so strongly within that moment as I currently straddle a cavern within my own life. Feeling unsettled and directionless between two worlds, which, within that moment was soothed by the calm that suffused through the canvas. My eye was drawn to the luminous light that broke through the clouds, like the silver line of sweat on my chubby child thigh, a change on the precipice. The calm found not before the storm, but within it. 

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