The paintings of Derek Cowie have long been suffused with a surrealist sensibility and a preoccupation with eco dystopian realities and speculative fiction. Sadly those alternate environmental realities are no longer abstract, but startlingly real and material. Cowie’s recent series of paintings and peculiar constructions explore the catastrophic plight of our natural environment and the ramifications for future generations with a new urgency.
A series of large-scale paintings of youthful faces appear almost as billboards of portents from the future, or like lost children peering out from the back of old fashioned milk cartons. With eyes fixed upon the viewer, their unwavering gaze shifts between plea and accusation. These works are painted on constructed rubber canvases, the underside of which provides a surprisingly mellifluous painting surface. This mass produced faux steel product known as ‘diamond point’ appeals to Cowie’s tendency to de-construct and sample images from history, mythology, and popular culture to reveal the complex, and sometimes grubby underside.
The titles of these works are taken from the names of so-called ‘witches’ who were burned to death during the witch hunts of the 15th – 18th centuries. Crop failure or hardship endured because of climate or pestilence was blamed on any woman who was seen to be a variance from the church. “Persecution is what our current life of plenty is exacting on future generations. Our collective abundance is now a death penalty,” writes Cowie.
Alongside these works sit numerous drawings and paintings of bears – standing upright, walking on hind legs, or with heads hanging low – as if the artist has become haunted by this creature, finding solace in the continual repetition of its image. While the image of the bear is somewhat obscure at first, as is often the nature of Cowie’s practice, its significance slowly begins to dawn. In the financial district of Manhattan, in New York City stands a bronze statue of a bull. The charging beast represents the ‘bull market’ – a phrase used to describe an economic environment that is strong and optimistic – while its counter is the ‘bear market’. Cowie’s paintings not only forebode the fate of our global environment but also the future of the global economy.