Dominated by powerfully engaging allegorical imagery and an insistently ambiguous narrative, Andrea Kowch’s works emphasize an investigation of both the minutia of a unique American existentialism and of a broader view of humankind’s relationship to the natural world itself. Recognizing that moral and scientific observation alone are insufficient to comprehending the vagaries of reality, her paintings and illustrations bestow mundane objects with a more profound significance and her juxtaposition of metaphorical imagery reveal mysteries that threaten the calm serenity of the material and matter of everyday life.
This transformation of the commonplace into the astounding also illustrates the historically blurred line dividing Magic Realism from Surrealism. Interestingly while Magic Realism has often been considered a primarily American style with only tangential and academic methodological connections to European classical painting, in fact it traces its roots to early twentieth century art in Germany as an outgrowth of expressionism and pre-dating the surrealists by a few years.
Where surrealism, however, focused on reality overcome by the impossibilities of fantasy, in the former (and certainly manifested in Ms. Kowch’s works), the discrepancies between the two are reconciled and, as the late critic and historian Franz Roh noted, the artists can acknowledge and express the idea that “the mystery does not descend to the represented world, but rather hides and palpitates behind it.”
Ms. Kowch is able to accomplish this, in no small part, due to an accomplished and confidant approach to the surface of the work itself as well as to her enviable painterly skills. Striving to eradicate any overt traces of the painting process, she is able to unshackle the work from all signs of mere technique or handicraft, thereby allowing the viewer to concentrate on the emotions inferred from the imagery rather than from the exuberantly overt presence of the artist’s hand.
Further, Ms. Kowch emphasizes a remarkably unsentimental and unemotional vision, her models seemingly completely non-plussed and even oblivious to the mysterious and enigmatic circumstances they find themselves in. In addition, she constructs within the works a tightly unified compositional structure that confidently organizes the picture plane while, in a dramatically theatrical manner, allowing the viewer to be impacted as much by the static elements within the painting as by those that are either intentionally dynamic or psychologically arresting.
This is particularly apparent in the work “Wood Fire” in which the stark pallor of the central figure is echoed on the bank of fog that obscures the barn and stand of trees in the background. Creating a wintry effect that seems almost chiaroscuro-like in its evocation of a mysterial foreboding, it is such a powerfully suggestive sensation that the introduction of a murder of crows in the central portion of the canvas barely add to the sense of disquiet that already permeates the scene.
Similarly, in “Her Fancy, Ms. Kowch uses chilly and autumnal skies that dominate the background while the foreground is anchored by a model dressed in what appears her Sunday finery, carrying a clutch purse in one hand and, in the other, a pheasant that the artist uses to echo the patterns of the woman’s knit vest. As incongruous as the ‘bird in hand’ might be, however, it is the unseen wind that orchestrates the composition and dynamically conjures the work’s air of atmospheric apprehension, as the tall grass bends beneath the shadows of ominous clouds and the model’s hair and ribbons are blown askew by the invisible hand of nature.
The wind is also the dominant component in “No Turning Back” as the entire scene is orchestrated by its bluster and force as a brush fire sweeps across the surface of the work. Creating a profound and powerful sense of horizontal movement as in the distance trees are bent by the airstream’s insistent fury, a solitary figure stands midst the flames, her hat blown off and her hair itself eerily echoing and underscoring the wild turbulence that surrounds her.
This wild yet strangely controlled commotion is further emphasized by the farmhouse in the middle distance, which serves to anchor the central portion of the canvas. Buffeted by the blustery weather as curtains flap wildly through open panes and, inexplicably, a flock of birds exit an upstairs window, all combine to create what is a singularly memorable sensation that is almost cinematic in its visual impact.
This sense of theater that permeates her work is perhaps best reflected by
the manner she uses the countryside of her native Michigan as the stage upon which she reflects a stylized though immediately recognizable evocation of a distinctly Middle American tableau. Masterfully using light and ambiance to highlight a sensibility that is desolate and austere, Ms. Kowch conjures isolation as a palpable entity that emanates from both her figures and from the landscape they occupy.
Using meteorology to emphasize the remoteness of her characters as well as to orchestrate the expressive tones that reverberate through each work, Ms. Kowch continually leans on the natural world to establish the atmosphere of mystery and ambiguity that drives her entertainingly vague narrative impulses. Stressing the anticipation of the unknown emerging from the familiar, Ms. Kowch’s use of ambiance and atmosphere mirrors the words of Andrew Wyeth when he observed that “I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape-the loneliness of it, the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn’t show.”
While Magic Realism has often been considered a primarily American style with only tangential and academic methodological connections to European classical painting, in fact it traces its roots to early