Berry Street, on the western edges of Brea, looks like any run-of-the-mill SoCal industrial strip. There's an auto body shop, a recycling center and a clutch of anonymous office parks. It's an unlikely spot to find a working artist's studio. But travel east along a narrow access road, around a warehouse stuffed to the gills with Winnebagos, and you'll find the workspace of painter Justin Bower. In a paint-splattered corner of a sprawling edifice once owned by N.A.S.A., Bower is hard at work on a series of oversized canvases for his solo exhibition at Ace Gallery in Los Angeles in the spring.
A couple of rackety tables support an explosion of oil paints in every imaginable shade. Palettes covered in blobs of green, lavender and aquamarine clog every surface. And, staring from a seven-foot canvas is a massive human face, slowly unraveling into a grid of trembling lines and glitchy patterns -- part anatomical sketch from the distant future, part intercepted transmission. Making the effect even more disconcerting is the fact that this head has a double set of eyes. "I like the idea of disrupting a viewer's vision," says Bower. "The brain tries to fix things. It tries to turn the two sets of eyes into one. But it can't. It creates this artificial sensory experience."
Stand before his paintings for too long, and it's hard not to feel like you're seeing things.
In just a few short years as a professional artist, this Orange County painter has met with a good measure of success. He had barely completed his Master's in Fine Arts at Claremont Graduate University in 2010, when he was picked up as part of the stable of artists at Ace Gallery in L.A. His first solo exhibit there, in early 2011, earned praise from critic Christopher Knight in the Los Angeles Times, who wrote that Bower's brushwork possessed the "lacerating quality of a surgeon's scalpel." In addition to his second solo at Ace, his paintings will also be on view at the Art Los Angeles Contemporary fair at the end of January.
In many ways, Bower, 37, is a bit of an unlikely figure. He has an abiding interest in philosophy and the effects of technology, but he is no reclusive techno-nerd. He is a ruggedly handsome former college football player who is as thoughtful as he is soft-spoken. Occasionally, he likes to sip a good scotch. Raised in Tustin, his family wasn't particularly devoted to the visual arts. But his father, an attorney, was an aspiring writer, and kept the house well-stocked with books. Among them: a well-thumbed copy of an art historical text from the 1960s that had a full-page reproduction of a work by Henri Matisse from the French artist's Fauvist period. Bower says that as a boy he was consistently drawn to the image for its electric color palette. "It was an image of a woman, with a green-ish face and black hair," he recalls. "Going from Leonardo drawings to this was like, 'Boom!'"
Despite his lifelong attraction to drawing -- he's been a doodler as long as he can remember -- much of his time as a young man was occupied by football. He was a wide receiver for his team at Foothill High School and later played at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It was football, peculiarly, that ended up driving him to painting. During his sophomore year at U of A, a scheduling conflict between an art class and athletics was causing him to arrive at practice 10 minutes late on a daily basis. His coach wasn't having it. "He said to me, 'It's either football or school," Bower recalls with a bewildered grin. "I scoffed and said, 'School, obviously!'" So he walked away from the team. The lessons learned playing football, however, weren't without value: "The sense of discipline, the body awareness, the coordination and the constant repetition -- not to mention the sense of risk." These are all qualities that he says help guide his painting.
Bower's influences are broad as his interests. Monographs on Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon are splayed around the studio -- two 20th century figures known for commanding wide canvases with their aggressive brush strokes and images that veered from the sinister to the grotesque. Of the latter, Bowers remarks: "He had the angst of a Kurt Cobain. What he did with color and spatial systems and the ways in which he twisted bodies -- it was something that really appealed to me as a younger artist." Lately, he's been investigating the hallucinatory qualities of the optical art movement of the 1960s, and has employed op art patterns as backgrounds for his pieces.
While his paintings take some of their cues from art history, Bower's pieces are nonetheless steeped in a future dystopia. His oversized faces -- random people he finds on the internet -- appear to be in the midst of being subsumed by technology. "I think of the series as being about an apparatus that seeks to destabilize the human subject," he explains. "They're leaking, their boundaries are breaking." Bower is deeply interested in the ways that unseen forces guide human behavior: the state, genetic manipulation, technology. Though not a sci-fi devotee ("reading philosophy can be scarier than reading science fiction"), he is partial to the novels of Philip K. Dick, the California writer who spent his later years in Orange County, producing books about parallel realities and issues of control. (The movie "Blade Runner" is based on Dick's novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?")
To some degree, it is Orange County's landscape that provides Bower with a good deal of inspiration. He still lives in Tustin, and maintains his studio in Brea. (He prefers to avoid the art world scene-making of L.A.: "I won't go to an opening unless I have to.") Bower acknowledges all the sneering that goes on about O.C. -- that it's dull or too rigid or too visually monotonous. But, like Dick, he has found plenty of weirdness to thrive on. "People think Hollywood is the great fiction manufacturer," he says. "But Orange County is, too. You have Disneyland. You have these highly controlled planned communities. You might be driving along rolling hills, and the next thing you know, you end up in some space that looks like where Steven Spielberg could have shot the government scenes in 'E.T.' Growing up here, there were large amounts of acreage -- like the military bases -- that were just locked up. No one really knew what was happening inside."
This sense of mystery is something that triggers his imagination -- of a reality in which the human is becoming everything but. A point, he says, "where we become more artifice than real." Perhaps it is no small coincidence that he is working these ideas out in Orange County, in an anonymous white warehouse on just another random industrial stretch.