VALHALLA, New York — Among the recent works in a 30-year survey of sculptures and collages by Nancy Bowen at Westchester Community College Art Gallery is a group of 20 tombstones (2020). Made of gray-toned paper pulp encrusted with tiny shells and pebbles, and veined with black pigment, each bears a ceramic plaque with the name of a woman or man killed during the Salem witch trials, an event presided over by one of the artist’s ancestors, Samuel Sewall, who eventually repented and atoned. Bowen took care to individuate each tombstone, surmounted by a set of ceramic wings and a skull facing in one direction, and grounded by ceramic shoes that project from the bottom. The head-and-wings motif is from early American funerary art, and symbolizes both mortality and resurrection; the shoes convey a feeling that these whimsical little characters — for that is what they are — might transcend their horrible fate by simply picking up and walking away.
In some ways the installation is an anomaly: it does not look much like other works in the show. Yet it embodies two strains long explored by this under-the-radar artist: on the one hand, experimenting with craft mediums such as ceramic and glass to represent a haptic experience of the (mostly female) body in vessel-like shapes; and on the other, asserting her ties to a personal New England history via collaged materials. Her late father left behind a trove of antique almanacs, maps, and charts that she scans and cuts up, interspersing the pieces (as she does throughout her many collages) with gouache, charcoal, ink and/or metallic foil. These are elegant images that vault through time and place, from chakras and littorals to astrological signs and defunct alphabets.
Sometimes a Body Is Not Just a Body includes sculptures in which materials sit uneasily in relation to each other: curvaceous blown glass forms atop or alongside ceramic and found objects like giant conch shells, hair, and in one case, a tortoise shell (retrieved, once again, from her father’s effects). “Teraton Necklace” (2003), referring to a grotesque tumor that grows hair, is a long, ungainly chain of visceral pink and red blown glass; white ceramic balls with undulating surfaces, recalling a molecule or a sea creature; and swatches of gray hair. The entirety is connected with steel links and rests loosely on a low plinth. Other pieces are more contained, forming vertical constructions from which long braids seem to grow. In the first decade of the 2000s, Bowen produced open structures that look as though they could be found in a fantastical garden. Especially lovely is “Exalt” (2007), a Gaudi-like pedestal studded with mirrors that sprouts a vine blooming resin ruffs. Bowen demonstrates a penchant for bright colors, with a particular love of pink, evoking both blood and feminine adornment.
Bowen is presently collaborating with the writer Elizabeth Willis on a bookwork. Willis is, improbably, the descendant of one of the witches Sewall prosecuted, and her long poem “The Witch” describes all the fanciful things a witch might do. The mock-up of the book, featuring illustrations by Bowen, is included in her survey. With lines like, “The happiness of an entire house may be ruined by witch hair touching a metal cross,” the poem suggests more than a striking coincidence of heritage. Bowen’s is an alchemical mix of the sensuous and arcane, and it is more than a little witchy.
Nancy Bowen: Sometimes a Body Is Not Just a Body continues at the Westchester Community College Art Gallery (Hankin Academic Arts Building, 3rd Floor, 75 Grasslands Road, Valhalla, New York) through April 12. The exhibition was curated by Joe Morris.