The old Victorian house was built in 1921. Shutters that had long sheltered it from the wind and rain sagged off their hinges. It had been abandoned for years and now smelled heavily of mold and decay. An old red Chevy pickup sat behind the house rust spots spattered the bed and fenders. The headliner was in good condition but the rest of the truck’s interior had seen better days. An old garage filled with rusting tools and water damaged-boxes of Life magazines sits east of the house. Its foundation peeks out from the ground from years of rain eroding at soft soil surrounding it.
This fantasy would be heaven for Mo Bowen. The artist and owner of The Voyeur gallery infuses time and timelessness in all of her work. The Molaroids, her version of polaroid photographs, are often made with older cameras or toy cameras. Her gallery has a row of Dianas, Holgas, Seagulls, and other assorted medium format cameras displayed on top of an exhibition wall. She also uses color slide film and is one of the few artists to explore scanography.
“The process is a conversation of time,” Bowen says. The conversation of old equipment and old places is what drives her to create her art. There is an element of the disappearing -film photography may never depart completely but is in serious decline- and many buildings are finding themselves abandoned in an economy of foreclosures. Bowen is tuned to the process of decay, “I need to photograph these scenes, it’s necessary to photograph the disappearing America.”
In recent times Bowen has been drawn to scanography. It is a process like collage in which layers of imagery and objects are arranged on a scanner bed then scanned into a computer. They do not necessarily differ from her photographs dramatically. The subjects have not changed much, objects of the discarded, even some of her moloroids make it into the finished product. The relationship has changed with the use of new technology. Some of the conversation of time now includes the modern.
Bowen was born and raised in Chicago. She attended the Dominican University just outside Chicago. She spent time in Chicago’s abandon lots full of tall grass and rusting junk. She first started shooting these settings with an old Pentax 35mm camera. In time it would lead her to study art in College. She doubled majored and earned her BA in Psychology and BFA in Photography.
After college she moved to the Eastern Sierras in California. The visit was short lived though, and Bowen found herself in Eugene, Oregon roughly a year later. Oddly enough, she was apprenticing to be a machinist. She still made photographs but found herself limited by the spaces she had access to show her work. Coffee shops were the only ones willing to show the work of emerging local artists. It was for this reason that Bowen opened her own gallery, The Voyeur, in May of 2010 in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood.
Bowen shows local artists, whether Eugene natives or transplant from other places. They are often emerging artists that she gives an opportunity for their first solo show. She makes a point of pushing the artists. She shows, “Any one who is up to the challenge.” While the gallery is small, artists preparing for their first solo show might find the space intimidating. “I want to fill the space with good work,” Bowen explains about her policy. It shows too. The latest exhibition, A Silvery Ushering, literally filled the gallery to the brim. The artist Tilke Elkins noted during her talk that she made extra work and brought pigment samples so she could fill the gallery. Artwork even wrapped around and behind the gallery counter.
Artist interaction is a unique part of an experience at The Voyeur. Many institutions hold artist talks or lectures but few require their artists to teach a workshop and even fewer request critique during exhibition openings. Not only is it different, it is successful. The gallery will be holding a second artist talk of a similar nature on July 19th.
The community has had a great fortune of dialogue with and within The Voyeur but Bowen feels there is still a lot to be done to improve the art scene within Eugene. “The level of sophistication and support isn’t here,” she says. “There just isn’t the education anymore, the space for classes isn’t there.” She makes a point of pulling people in just for a conversation not to sell them work. Bowen has made a conscious effort to dispel the myth of the white walls and make them less intimidating to the average Eugene resident. There is hope though as she finds more and more Eugene residents in her gallery. She says,”[I have seen recently] a lot of familiar faces, hundreds.” The increased attendance could mean a bright future for the small gallery.
Her success is unusual in an town where two main commercial galleries, La Follette and Fenario, and a major non-profit gallery, DIVA, had to close doors. Still other have downsized staff significantly in recent history. The Register-Guard, the local Eugene paper, released an article at the end of 2010 detailing the decline of art institutions.
Maybe it is The Voyeur’s small size and Bowen’s hard work alone that keeps the gallery alive but the business model does break the trend of the standard commercial gallery. The attempt to reach a wider audience and share some common ground with average people may be what keeps the gallery running. Even price points are considerably lower than average. This could be entirely due to inexperience of her artists but with fresh-out-of-graduate-school artists selling paintings in the tens of thousands it is more plausible that the art is priced to sell to the broader community.
If you are ever in the Whiteaker be sure to stop by 547 Blair Ave. There across from the Pizza Research Institute and next to Olivejuice is the little gallery. In some ways it resembles its name as it peeks out onto the street among bigger businesses. It is a part of Mo Bowen; part of a vision she has for Eugene’s art scene and she will be there to tell you a thing or two about art.