Erotic Whimsy and the High Art of Letting Go: Life with Fred Gowland | KCET
Erotic Whimsy and the High Art of Letting Go: Life with Fred Gowland
There may not be a younger, hipper, more irreverent and more life embracing 72 year-old on the planet than Fred Gowland. Collected internationally and as prolific with the paint brush as anyone who actually sleeps can be, Gowland is on a mission these days to explode everything he has ever learned about art. On a recent sun soaked afternoon, the Pacific Ocean stretching out towards infinity off his back deck, Gowland, his clothes splattered with paint and his hands busy making a cocktail, expounds on his latest creative enlightenment. "Before, I was some sort of whore- if someone bought a red painting from me I would be messing around with red the very next day. It was awful." he says. "But now, I don't give a shit anymore. I just want it to be free and honest and off the top of my head. I mean, it's art and it's all sort of bull shit, so why not do what you want."
At a time in a career arc when most are looking to lay back on their laurels and hit cruise control towards the setting sun, Gowland doesn't just have his foot on the accelerator still, he is flat out flooring it. A few years ago, he made the decision to abandon his long time studio space and relocate his daily artistic adventures to his home atop the hill in Summerland, a sleepy little beach town just south of Santa Barbara. In many ways that was the beginning of his personal revolution. He set up shop in his garage and immediately began breaking down walls in his creative process. It was a definite addition by subtraction type of deal. "I've been living in my own little world ever since," says Fred with a bit of mischief in his voice, "I can paint whenever I want now. I can have a drink or smoke grass or just take a break on the porch. I can have friends over or wake up at 3 am and paint. It just doesn't matter and it's wonderful."
However, despite his proclamations of new found freedom, closer inspection of Fred's world reveals that things have been anything but buckled down for quite sometime. First off, his home is an eclectic and wonderful and twisted museum in and of itself; things like skulls and rusted out Tonka trucks and wooden indian heads and shell fish carapaces and antique stain glass windows share space with even odder items of intrigue that he has collected from decades worth of go-slow travel through India and Africa and Europe and the United States. The sun seems to creep into all corners of the home at some point of the day and there are at least 2 separate bar areas set up and waiting for fun to break out. An occurrence, which, you get the feeling happens more often than not.
And his art, well, his art is everywhere. Canvas after canvas (many of them up-cycled affairs) stack against the walls, lurk behind doors, and hang on any available space in-between. Oil and and water color renderings of stolen scenes from his travels or peek-a-boos into the inner workings of his mind are his primary inspiration, all of it informing a hyper-ADD tonality that is erotic yet whimsical, fun yet political, serious yet satirical. Emotive and spot-on portraits of animals from Madagascar and French prostitutes are within an arms length of an abstract triptych of a man receiving a hand job which is close to an Indian street scene which is right above a rendering of two camels resting which is just across the room from an idyllic painting of Santa Barbara's palm lined waterfront. In short, his house is the type of place that you may find yourself deciding to buy a painting of a nude beach blanket bingo scene while sitting on the toilet. After all, as Fred explains it, such a development is perfectly natural, at least in his world. "It makes sense, if you think about it." he explains, "I mean, you are all alone in there so what better time."
But the real window into Gowland's magic comes in the garage. It is here, amongst the slightly organized chaos of collected trinkets that he has yet to translate into the landscape of his home, that Fred paints every single day. He does it to stay alive he says and there is no reason to argue with him. Piles of half-spent oil tubes clutter about his current "in-progress" canvas, a zoomed in, textured and brightly colored look at the underwater action on a men's water polo match. The garage doors are, as always, flung wide open, allowing the fresh ocean air and brilliant coastal sunlight to pour in. There is a message scrawled on a storage cabinet along the far wall, the words "Stay hungry...Stay foolish" written boldly black ink by none other than Steve Jobs (Yes, that Steve Jobs) during a visit to Fred's a few years back. Recently finished pieces lie about casually, seemingly left behind as the artist charges forward. Gowland credits his artistic pedigree to folks like Rex Brandt, Arthur Wood and the late Jack Baker, the latter being a dear, dear friend of his for many years. And while the echoes of those artists are certainly visible in Fred's wide-ranging work, you get the feeling that the truly formative stuff for him as an artist has been nothing more than simply living a full life with his eyes and heart wide-open. "It is almost scary" admits Gowland after a second drink, "There are so many ideas in my head and I'm thinking all these different things. There is nothing more exciting to me than a blank canvas." His voice drifts off as he seems lost in the idea of a blank canvas. Then, snapping back, his bright blue eyes suddenly with a new spark in them, he grabs two near by bleached-out animal skulls or, at least, what appear to be animal skulls. "What are these?" he asks. And, before I can answer, he continues, thrusting the items out in front of him as he speaks. "That's the thing about art, they are either skulls or they aren't and who really cares? I could paint them or I could leave them like this or I could put them in that cage or I could stack them on a stick and put a Balinese mask on top. You can do whatever you want."
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