One of the modern masterpieces in the RA Collection, Wintergreens was made in 1986, the year Frank Bowling moved to a studio with a view of the Thames in Limehouse, London. He’s referred to the city as “Turner’s town” and the scale of this painting has attracted comparisons with the ambitious landscapes of past artists such as Turner and Constable.
The title refers to plants that keep their leaves throughout winter, also known as evergreens. With its colours and textures of winter vegetation, Tate curator Zoe Whitley has likened this work to “a network of bamboo, reeds, and cattails in a stagnant pond”.
To make this work, Bowling added layer upon layer of material. Strips of acrylic foam (a material used in commercial packing) were attached to the canvas, creating a gridlike structure onto which he applied thick layers of paint and translucent acrylic gel. This weighed down the foam, pulling it into new shapes. Bowling then created a new substance by mixing gel and pigment, which he applied in thick layers with a spatula. The quick-drying properties of acrylic paint (as opposed to oil) allowed him to quickly pile on layers of paint. In among the paint, Bowling nested an assortment of unusual objects, including the cap of a film canister and even a plastic toy owl.
In this painting and others, Bowling is exploring the complexity of the world rather than reducing it to legible images. The crusted, swamplike texture of the painting seems to challenge the possibility of seeing clearly altogether. The curator of Bowling’s Mappa Mundi exhibition Okwui Enwezor has written that Wintergreens provides a “deeply sceptical vision” of the sublime, far removed from the vastness and grandeur of artists such as Turner.