Margaret Bowland, Part 2

Continuing with Margaret Bowland, we’ll start off with some more of the works from the ‘Another Thorny Crown’ series.  Again, the symbolism here is fairly obvious: Bowland is using the context of America’s history of slavery (cotton being one of the primary crops of plantations that owned and worked slaves, hence, a crop that was planted, tended and harvested by slaves) as well as the old racist practice of black-face–here rendered in reverse–to challenge America’s beauty culture and to point out how girls are slaves and martyrs to it.  It’s either a bold and astute statement or a cheap and exploitative one–like I said in the earlier post, it’s a pretty fine line that she’s up against there, and which side of that line she’s on likely depends on the viewer.  By the way, as anyone who has ever picked cotton (and I have) knows, when cotton reaches maturity its bolls become rigid and sharp and can cut your hands up if you’re not careful.  Thus, the cotton plant being recast as the crown of thorns makes sense, as slaves no doubt did physical injury to their hands when harvesting cotton prior to the invention of the cotton gin.

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Margaret Bowland – Another Thorny Crown 4 (2010)

Margaret Bowland - Another Thorny Crown 5 (2011)

Margaret Bowland – Another Thorny Crown 5 (2011)

Margaret Bowland - Another Thorny Crown 6 (2011)

Margaret Bowland – Another Thorny Crown 6 (2011)

Margaret Bowland - My Funny Valentine (2007)

Margaret Bowland – My Funny Valentine (2007)

Margaret Bowland - Party, Chelsea Gallery (2009)

Margaret Bowland – Party, Chelsea Gallery (2009)

Margaret Bowland - Portrait of Kenyetta and Brianna (2008)

Margaret Bowland – Portrait of Kenyetta and Brianna (2008)

Margaret Bowland - Someone to Watch Over Me

Margaret Bowland – Someone to Watch Over Me

Margaret Bowland - The Artist (2010)

Margaret Bowland – The Artist (2010)

Margaret Bowland - The Silhouette Maker (2010)

Margaret Bowland – The Silhouette Maker (2010)

Margaret Bowland - When You Wish Upon a Star (The Artist's Wig) (2011)

Margaret Bowland – When You Wish Upon a Star (The Artist’s Wig) (2011)

Margaret Bowland - White Crows #1 (2007)

Margaret Bowland – White Crows #1 (2007)

Margaret Bowland (Official Site)

See also: Margaret Bowland, Part 1

Margaret Bowland, Part 1

I’m somewhat perplexed by Margaret Bowland’s work.  Not stylistically—she is a solid photorealist painter—but philosophically.  Her work is infused with a feminist consideration of the meaning of beauty; that much is clear.  Indeed, her work is explicitly political.  No one can look at these coy, wide-eyed little girls painted in white face and wearing crowns of cotton or emerging out of giant watermelons without seeing the obvious symbolism there.   Moreover, there is a certain surrealist aura to her work.  In fact, upon my first encounter with Bowland’s paintings, the little girls immediately reminded me of the character Alma as a child in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s deliciously sensuous surrealist horror film Santa Sangre.  What that says about me I will leave to the shrinks (armchair and otherwise) to figure out.  Nonetheless, I cannot be the only one who sees the use of dwarfs, bald women and mime-faced children in one’s paintings as owing something to the circus aesthetic.

But okay, I get it.  These paintings are intended to recast the mold for our idealized conceptions of beauty.   The problem, of course, is that beauty is not entirely a cultural creation.  Sure, some of it is, but there are some important aspects of beauty that are wound tightly up with our human essence.  There are two qualities in particular, and these are pretty much true of most animal species: symmetry and youth.  It has to do with our assessment of the healthiness of a sexual partner and her ability to bear and raise healthy offspring, which is why males place a higher degree of importance on youth than females do.  Men can produce viable sperm well into old age and can father healthy children without any real health risks to themselves or the child, but women need to be young enough to both bring a healthy child to term and raise the child.  (This is not, by the way, intended to suggest that we must be ruled by our genes, but only to point out that there is a genetic basis for these preferences.)

But I’m getting off track here.  What I want to say about Margaret Bowland’s paintings of little black girls is, first, that they are beautifully executed, and second, that they are intentionally provocative in the way that a lot of feminist art is intentionally provocative.  But unlike with, say, Jill Greenberg’s photos, they don’t feel exploitative.  At least not to me.  Others may feel differently.  It’s a fine line, so judge for yourself.

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Margaret Bowland – Flower Girl

Margaret Bowland - Flower Girl #2 (2009)

Margaret Bowland – Flower Girl #2 (2009)

Margaret Bowland - Murakami Wedding #2

Margaret Bowland – Murakami Wedding #2

Margaret Bowland - Wedding Cake (1)

Margaret Bowland – Wedding Cake (1)

Margaret Bowland - Wedding Cake (2)

Margaret Bowland – Wedding Cake (2)

Margaret Bowland - Wedding Party

Margaret Bowland – Wedding Party

Margaret Bowland - Another Thorny Crown - Gray J (2010)

Margaret Bowland – Another Thorny Crown – Gray J (2010)

Margaret Bowland - Another Thorny Crown (2010)

Margaret Bowland – Another Thorny Crown (2010)

Margaret Bowland - Another Thorny Crown 2 (2010)

Margaret Bowland – Another Thorny Crown 2 (2010)

Margaret Bowland - Amazing Grace (2011)

Margaret Bowland – Amazing Grace (2011)

Margaret Bowland - And the Cotton is High (2011)

Margaret Bowland – And the Cotton is High (2011)

Margaret Bowland (Official Site)