Irby Benjamin Roy, Chicken Episode, 2008, mixed mediums, found objects
Ed McGowin's retrospective exhibition Name Change is currently up at Herron Galleries in Indianapolis through April 17. Upon entering the gallery, it is difficult to believe that all of the art on exhibition was created by one person. There is photography, bronze sculpture, painting, woodcarving, and minimalist sculpture. The subject matter is as varied as the media, ranging from iconography of dogs in odd scenarios to exploding ice cream cones to depictions of specific people and storytelling narratives. McGowin has had his name legally changed a total of twelve times, and creates art for each of the names (including Ed McGowin). Each section of the exhibition contains a framed, screen printed copy of the official name change document for the respective artistic persona. It is truly incredible how each "artist" has his own style, subject matter and quirkiness. The exhibition includes art that McGowin has produced throughout his entire career of nearly 40 years.
Alva Isaiah Fost, Four Modules, 1972, vacuum formed and painted plastic
The following is McGowin's own description of his artistic agenda, taken from the catalog:
This project was started in 1970 to explore a theory I conceived about the way art history would evolve in the future. I developed this theory as a means of freeing myself from a system that I found frustrating as a young artist at the beginning of my career: That my work should develop as a linear chain-link model with each creation leading logically to the next. Instead, I preferred to envision my work as a three-dimensional sphere getting larger over time. To demonstrate this theory I had my name changed legally twelve times in the District of Columbia court system. For each name I created works of art and exhibited them at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1972. For the past thirty-five years I have continued to create works for the twelve names.
Had I created all of these works under one name, I believe they would have been received very differently, with critical analysis of the development of the artist figuring prominently in the consideration of each piece. The different identities under which I made this art may allow for a broader approach to receiving these images, without tying them to past history or future expectations.
When the names of McGowin's eleven personas (his given name is the twelfth) are arranged in the following way, the first letter of each name can be taken to spell out "A line in time."
Alva Isaiah Fost
Lawrence Steven Orlean
Irby Benjamin Roy
Nathan Ellis McDuff
Euri Ignatius Everpure
Isaac Noel Anderson
Nicholas Gregory Nazianzen
Thorton Modestus Dossett
Ingram Andrew Young
Melvill Douglas O'Connor
Edward Everett Updike
McGowin is certainly a multi-talented artist, but his prowess in woodcarving stands out the most. Some of his art is embellished with elaborately carved frames, as in the second photo below. His art is extremely curious; it almost verges on kitsch at times yet it is so bizarre and interesting in its subject matter and execution as well as choice of materials that it has no trouble securing its place in the world of fine art.
Top image: William Edward McGowin, left to right: Musician, 2004, cast bronze. New Jersey, 2003, foam and board model. Librarian, 2004, cast bronze.
Bottom image: Nicholas Gregory Nazianzen, Workers Waving Goodbye, 1994, pastel on linen, carved and painted wood frame
The artistic persona that stands out the most is that of Thorton Modestus Dossett. "All of Thornton's work is about race. It's about the way that, particularly where I grew up in the deep South, the two races come together. One society that was occupied and defeated after the Civil War, another society that was enslaved; two badly damaged psyches in that respect, but yet they come together to create some really remarkable, interesting things," McGowin explains. The carved wooden pieces cast interesting and elaborate shadows onto the gallery walls when they are installed, which serves as an interesting metaphor for the shadows that racially charged incidents have cast over America.
The piece below tells the story of Oseola McCarthy, a washer woman who saved money from washing shirts at $0.15 a piece and gave the University of Southern Mississippi $150,000 in cash to help minority women go to school. The scholarship fund she set up now receives many contributions from around the United States.
Thorton Modestus Dossett, Oseola, 2001, carved and painted wood and urethane
This piece is about the coming together of music in Mississippi. The life stories of Robert Johnson (in black), Jimmy Rogers (in white), and Elvis Presley (in blue) are depicted. McGowin is attempting to show how blues and country music came together to form rock 'n roll.
Thorton Modestus Dossett, Johnson, Rogers, Presley, 2002, carved and painted wood and urethane
This painting depicts the murder of three young African American boys by the KKK. McGowin thus works to show a broad view of racial issues in the South encompassing both positive and negative stories, all told in his characteristically unique and quirky manner.
Thorton Modestus Dossett, McAlpin, 1999, enamel on canvas
McGowin has twenty permanent public art commissions and his art is held in the collections of The Guggenheim Museum, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Hirshhorn Museum, and many others. He is Professor Emeritus at the State University of New York at Old Westbury.
I had a chance to talk with Ed about his art recently. See what he had to say:
*Note: At the beginning of the video when Ed says "non-linear," he meant to say "linear."