April 23-May 25, 2022
Alexander Berggruen is pleased to present Elana Bowsher: Pas de Deux. This exhibition opened Saturday, April 23 with a reception from 6-8 pm at the gallery (1018 Madison Avenue, Floor 3, New York, NY).
On the occasion of Elana Bowsher: Pas de Deux, Chloe Benjamin–distinguished writer and close friend of Bowsher–meditates on the nuanced implications of Bowsher’s tondo paintings. Benjamin offers unique insight into Bowsher’s influences from her early years in dance, enriched by their shared experiences and ongoing artistic relationship.
Chloe Benjamin is the author of The Immortalists, a New York Times bestseller, and The Anatomy of Dreams, which received the 2014 Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award. Originally from San Francisco, she now lives in Madison, WI.
In Pas de Deux, her first solo exhibition, Elana Bowsher explores the tension between a private body and a body seen—an age-old and primal dynamic that has been dramatized, with various degrees of equity and self-awareness, throughout the history of painted nudes. With influences that range from Renaissance sculpture to Pop Art painting, this series conveys a sense of reclamation and sensitivity. The postures in certain tondos are the artist’s own invention; in others, Bowsher has used her own body to mimic historical poses, including Michelangelo’s David and Modigliani’s Nu couché. The result is a coy dance between artist and viewer, present and past, cheek and cheek.
While this complexity gives the tondos a thoughtful and even feminist center, they also resist moralizing classification. David and Nu couché, of course, are bodies whole. Bowsher has chosen a single part, which takes as many shapes as it does nicknames: butt, bottom, ass, fanny, bum. Unlike body parts that are more or less overtly sexualized, the butt straddles genres: coy here, humble there, pert provocateur and gentle padding. Bowsher’s dreamlike color palette—ochre, periwinkle, burnt sienna, mauve—is similarly flexible in tone. In contrast to the figurative backgrounds of traditional nudes, negative space thrusts the body into unreality and creates separate, interpretive forms. Painted in soft shadow, it becomes unselfconscious and surprisingly tender.
Bowsher’s background in ceramics and sculpture is perceptible in the subtle nod to Greek figurative sculpture, as well as the tondo format itself. Encircled, the body is suspended not just in space but in shape. The interplay of flat planes and sculptural qualities calls to mind the process by which three-dimensional bodies are rendered two-dimensional by both painting and the digital era. Against the Zoom-heavy backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, these are zoomed-in images whose close cropping is both playful and revealing. One imagines a peephole; and one wonders who, exactly, is peeking. There is an undeniably voyeuristic element, but in the age of the selfie, it seems equally possible that the body and the onlooker are one and the same.
Bowsher’s interest in describing the body stems in part from her years as a ballet dancer. During high school, we both attended a rigorous preprofessional program at the Academy of Ballet in San Francisco. Academy, as we called it, was a small universe of bodies located in a larger one: the Castro neighborhood, a longtime symbol of sexual freedom, where the lines between public and private blurred. Sex was explicit, but impishly so: kink shops sat beside cookie stores; the resident pizzeria was called The Sausage Factory; and Academy’s pointe studio looked out over a gay bar whose neon lights flashed as we warmed up at a barre of a different sort.
In the studio, its walls paneled with mirrors, we learned early to evaluate our bodies. But the dressing room was our domain. No teachers ever entered. There I remember a physical intimacy and solidarity that felt rare as a teenage girl. We knew what each other’s bodies looked like, how they worked, and where they carried tension. We ran unselfconsciously to Walgreens in our leotards and tights to buy Munchies, which we devoured between classes, unashamed of our hunger. When I left for college, this is what I missed most—the body, critiqued alone but accepted in community—and I see in these tondos a similar combination of vulnerability and defiance.
Perhaps, if they could speak, they would not, in the end, say: Look at me.
Perhaps instead they implore: Look at us.
This exhibition marks Elana Bowsher’s first solo show with Alexander Berggruen, following her inclusion in our inaugural art fair booth at FOG Art+Design (January 19-23, 2022) and in the gallery’s group shows Animal Kingdom (June 26-August 29, 2020) and Elana Bowsher, Vicente Matte, Gabriel Mills (June 2-July 14, 2021).
Elana Bowsher (b. 1990, San Francisco, CA) received a BA in Art at UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, Los Angeles, CA. Bowsher has been an artist-in-residence at The Macedonia Institute, Chatham, NY. She completed special projects at Cerámica Suro, Guadalajara, MX, in 2018 and 2019. Her work has been exhibited at Alexander Berggruen, NY; Half Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; The Pit Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; Guerrero Gallery, San Francisco, CA; Night Gallery, Los Angeles, CA; Club Pro, Toronto, ON; and Steve Turner, Los Angeles, CA. Her work will be included in forthcoming group shows at Stems Gallery, Paris, FR and CLEARING Gallery, Brooklyn, New York. Bowsher lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.