This iteration of Viewpoints features Panorama Drawing (2003), a large gouache and watercolor painting by Seattle-based artist Claire Cowie (U.S., born 1975) made during the artist’s residency at the Henry in 2003. Cowie made this painting over a duration of three weeks, repeatedly rearranging a series of hybrid, animal-like sculptures (also produced by the artist during the residency) across a long shelf and continuously repainting the scene as it changed. The resulting surface is an accumulation of layered marks that resists a linear narrative and instead evokes an enigmatic dream-like space between documentation and fantasy. Within the sediment of paint, figures mutate and shift, conjuring a sort of fairy-tale uncanny with identifiable forms coming in and out of view and disappearing into veils of paint.
Claire Cowie is a Full-Time Lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Visual Arts Program at the University of Washington. She has received many awards for her work, including a Pollock-Krasner Grant and fellowships from the Washington State Arts Commission, Artist Trust, Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, and the Behnke Foundation.
Below is the featured commentary by University of Washington faculty that accompanies the installation.
Duplication and Hopeful Monsters
-Evan Eichler, Professor, Department of Genome Sciences
In this drawing of duplicate, layered, and hybrid figures there is an impression of movement and transformation evocative of evolutionary processes and phenomena, and the behavior of genes in species adaptation. The duplicate figures, which sometimes appear nearly identical and other times show evidence of significant change, are reminiscent of duplicate genes within an evolving genome that are tandemly clustered, inverted, or transposed to new locations, mutating and changing in structure, form, and function over time. Such duplicates lead to novel genes with new functions that may benefit survival, making them critical to the adaptive evolution of species. Looking closely at the layers of painted figures, viewers can see a residue of transformation that is analogous to the mutational processes that leave traces of their activity in our genome and allow us to accurately reconstruct the order of events across generations.
The drawing also shows intimations of hybrid figures such as the horse-like creature with a dragon tail. These hybrids remind one of the “hopeful monsters” once posited by the maligned evolutionary biologist, Richard Goldschmidt, who, in 1940, argued that subtle mutations were insufficient to promote sudden large-scale change during species evolution. Instead, Goldschmidt hypothesized that macromutations were required, perhaps through interbreeding of incipient species, leading to the formation of offspring whose genome and physical features differed radically from either parent. Such “hopeful monsters” catapult species forward allowing them to adapt to an environment, which is subject to constant and sometimes dramatic change
Birds as Magical Helpers
-Lars Jenner, Lecturer, Department of Scandinavian Studies
Like a sustaining force, compassionate coexistence circulates among human and animal forms in this work by Claire Cowie. Nothing seems proscriptive. Grimms’ fairy tale “The Golden Goose” tells us something about forceful co-opting of a magical treasure from nature. While everyone who grabs at the goose gets stuck to it and dragged around, Simpleton (who, of course, is not simple at all) gains access to the wonders of this treasure through an act of kindness to a dwarf, with whom he generously offers to share his food.
Frequently in the world of myth and folklore otherwise hidden communication, such as the speech of birds, suddenly becomes a resource to sort out unresolved issues. In Cowie’s drawing, a bird alights freely on a woman’s head and rests. Perhaps someone within the community represented here understands the speech of birds in the same way that the great hero Sigurd, in the Scandinavian legend , understands the speech of birds after tasting the blood of the dragon’s heart. The birds’ advice leads Sigurd toward wisdom and the sage shield maiden Brynhild who teaches him of the magical dimensions of language:
Speech runes shall you know
If you want no repayment
In hate words for harm done.
Mythological narrative, as some have suggested, works to mediate opposing elements in the world: good and evil, physical and spiritual, mystical and mundane. Here nature is not a threat to civilization but an auspicious and guiding friend, a way to access the liminality of life and fluidity of being.
Fluctuating Forms: Identity and Imagination
-Jana Mohr Lone, Director, UW Center for Philosophy for Children
How can we know who we are when we are constantly changing?
— Third grade student, John Muir Elementary School
evokes the dreamlike quality and perpetually changing forms of the world, awareness of which is often strongest in childhood. Children tend to accept life’s haziness and fluctuations, a perspective that allows for a kind of playfulness with ideas and an ease with colliding perceptions that often eludes adults. In the process of forming and understanding their own fluid identities, most children seem open to the role of imagination and invention in creating meaning. In this work, Claire Cowie seems to engage a similarly powerful and playful creativity in order to animate the mutability of her visionary world.
The figures here illuminate the shifting and indistinct nature of identity. Who are these beings? How are they related to us? Varying in degrees of clarity, the animals, birds, humans, and other figures seem larger than life in some places and in others barely noticeable—intimately connected and simultaneously disconnected, otherworldly and yet grounded in the physical world. There is a lightness and delicacy about the work; yet hovering around the edges of what we see is a sense of darkness and solidity. The figures invite us to consider our conceptions of our communities and ourselves, and to re-connect with our childhood appreciation for the uncertainty and instability of identity.