Since 2011 I have researched and produced a series of artworks on the bower structures of male bowerbirds. I have documented hundreds of bowers over this period, in a journey that has extended over the range of the birds in Australia, and into West Papua. This bower from remote Cape York is seen from the female’s viewpoint. The painting examines the male’s use of forced perspective and elements of visual composition in creating the illusion of additional depth in his bower and court.
Professor John A. Endler from Deakin University's Centre for Integrative Ecology generously shared his research into the aesthetics of the bowerbirds, and this informed my approach to these pieces. Despite appearances, the painting uses no collage, and incorporates traditional painting methods as well as poured, spattered, thrown and cast items formed from acrylic paint using a process developed to document the objects typically found in the bowers.
Bowerbirds of the bird family Ptilonorhynchidae have courtship behaviour unique in the animal kingdom. The males of seventeen of the twenty known species build a structure of sticks, decorating it and the meticulously prepared surrounding area (the court) with a variety of carefully selected and placed objects. There are a number of different styles of bower belonging to the various species, and the general choice of decoration type is also determined by the species. Most people are familiar with the blue objects typically chosen by the Satin Bowerbird. These birds are related to the Birds of Paradise, and are distributed over many parts of Australia and Papua.
The Great Bowerbird (illustrated in this painting), favours green, grey, white, and red or pink treasures. His bower is frequently found beneath low vegetation, and he is meticulous in the placement of the treasures in his court. Frequently large objects are placed in the foreground, with the smaller ones at the rear of the court. This serves to create the illusion to the female that he has a large area of assembled objects, and is much the same visual tool employed by artists when creating depth.
An example of a Great Bowerbird Bower in Boodjamulla National Park.
Bower treasures from the Boodjamulla Bower
The structures are frequently overlooked, as they are well camouflaged in their surroundings.
The backgrounds of these paintings (whilst ultimately almost covered) are poured and spattered, and reference the landscape where the particular bower was located for colours and forms.
Whilst the majority of the surface of these paintings are a loose application of paint mimicking colour and form, I wanted to include some recognisable 'treasure' elements in the works for people to find, and perhaps be surprised by. They also serve as a record of those items that have characterised each individual bower. Treasures in a bower site are very representative of the bower location. Each is a record in miniature of its environment. A friend refers to this difference as "town and country bowers", an apt description. All these paintings are scale representations of the bowers.
All the three dimensional elements in these paintings are created exclusively from synthetic polymer paint...
The cast objects were a technique I developed through trial and error, and one used nowhere else that I know of. These are not mixed media or collage works, the following images show something of the process involved.
Casts of a feather, similar to the one in the foreground of this painting.
A range of casts and objects from them, all synthetic polymer paint.
Objects of the type typical to a particular bower were sourced, and impressions taken from these objects. Paint was then layered over days (or weeks) to build up the synthetic polymer impressions. Once dry, these were carefully unmolded and incorporated back into the painting. As synthetic polymer has excellent adhesion qualities, the cast items were adhered using gels or pastes, and incorporated into the painted work.
All have been cast from actual objects, however I don't remove anything from the bowers I observe.
Jane James, 2016
Social Media - Jane James Fine Artist