Roy Fowler comes to Santa Barbara by way of several decades’ residence in Manhattan, but he does so as a native son coming home. There could be no better place for him to land than the Patty Look Lewis Gallery, where his masterful, expressionistic paintings of waves, shells, and butterflies look handsome and up to the minute. Fowler employs a bright, slightly restricted palette that helps foreground his considerable skills as a draftsman. His images of the whorls created by breaking ocean waves are reminiscent of surf magazine photographs that capture the inside of curling breakers, creating a vivid sensation of the wave’s thrust and dynamism. Blown up to this size-a hefty 75Ê°96Ê°-the Fowler barrels are built out of nearly abstract patches of solid color arranged so as to indicate the rippling reflections and translucencies of moving water. The combination of painterly brush control and decisive, almost sculptural scale results in a wonderfully satisfying image, something that seems at once absolutely familiar and perfectly original.
On another wall of the gallery hangs “Coronado,” a large canvas that depicts the Monarch butterflies in their habitat on the Ellwood Bluffs. The oil painting is almost cubist in its structure, but through the green leaves and shield-shaped Monarchs there breathes the lush freedom of Henri Rousseau’s sublime equatorial jungles. There is an interesting story behind this monumental image. In 2001, Fowler took a position teaching painting at UCSB that was to begin in late September. On September 11, Fowler and his wife were evacuated from their long-time residence in Manhattan’s TriBeCa, just blocks from the World Trade Center disaster. For a time, Fowler sat in a Brooklyn-bound subway car directly beneath the burning buildings. His train pulled out of the station just moments before the towers collapsed. Deeply affected by this traumatic experience, Fowler nevertheless made his way to UCSB, only to find that he was increasingly uncomfortable working indoors. In an attempt to shake his anxiety, he took his painting class outside and began a series of watercolors, one of which became the basis for “Coronado.” It’s been a long trek, but something very special has come out of the journey.