The Independent Collector

JOHN WINDSOR's guide to collecting contemporary art: this week, carolyn gowdy
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The Independent Culture
Take an escalator down into the twilight world of Carolyn Gowdy. Her paintings of doll-like people and their curious theatre of dreams are being exhibited on London Underground platforms in advertisements for Seaview sparkling Australian wine.

Gowdy, a 44-year-old American visionary artist who settled in London 20 years ago, has changed the look of British book, magazine and poster illustration. Both her commercial and private work is being bought internationally as fine art.

David Dye, head of art for BMP DDB, the advertising agency handling the Seaview account, had waited 10 years for an opportunity to use her work. It is not easy to place because it tends to steal the show. Seaview's posters allow it to do just that.

In the poster series, different affinity groups meet to drink wine. Glasses in hand, sky divers lie on the floor in star-shaped formations of five, as if airborne, mountaineers meet near the summit of the stairs, and - yet to come - art critics scrutinise the bare walls of an art gallery, apparently out of habit.

You have to be on a certain wavelength to enter Gowdy's world. Once absorbed in it, it feels warm and safe, almost womb-like. But just who are those naively-drawn little people with rudimentary eyes and lips and tiny feet, who scatter themselves in the frame as if they did not know the rules of good composition? They do seem to be sharing the same moment. But have they the slightest clue who they are, or what they are doing?

The clue is in Landscape, a big painting shown at a solo exhibition of hers in Toronto in 1992, in which they are drawn in an even more unresolved style - mere line drawings in ink, through which glows the warm umber and comforting azure of some kind of cosmic soup.

Gowdy describes them as "foetus-like". She says: "They are ready to become people, but this is how they begin". So that is what they are doing. Evolving. It is clearly a full-time occupation. As it is for us all.

Gowdy describes how she makes a picture: "Like Alice, I feel I must first transport myself into their world. I often begin by being in a still place. Then it may be like passing through a garden gate or a door in a wall. I look for the characters and, one by one, they emerge as if from the ether, from foetal stage into fully alive beings.

"Right from the earliest stage, I become very involved with their development. It is like bringing them to life. They do have emotions, and souls. I draw them as real as possible without their being realistic. You don't have to draw realistically in order to make things real..

She talks to them in "heart language". A "heart person", a heart with head and limbs, is a recurring motif in her work, as are birds and angels. Then there are the silver snowflakes and the other bits and bobs that have accumulated in her London studio and find their way into her pictures - dried flowers in miniature bottles, shells, a feather butterfly, buttons. The walls, chairs and tables, the monumental cardboard box files containing her pictures and scrap-books, even the floor, are covered with a fine dust of vanilla spray-paint. It is a safe, serene place to work, like an alchemist's sanctuary.

At the age of 10, Gowdy won a scholarship to Mark Tobey's Creative Art School in Seattle, which did not believe in formal art instruction. She graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design and then the RCA in London. Her illustrations have appeared on book covers published by Penguin, Faber & Faber and others, in newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, English and American Vogue, and The Independent. She has won awards almost annually, has shown extensively in the United States, Canada, England, Europe and Japan, lectures in art colleges and has just returned from a lecture assignment in Tel Aviv. A retrospective of her work will be shown at England and Co, west London, in the new year.

Carolyn Gowdy (0171-731 5380). England and Co. (0171-221-0417).Drawings, paintings, box art, pounds 150-pounds 5,000. Signed prints and books from pounds 30