Nate Lowman

Nate Lowman moves within the American art world, and consumer and media society more generally, continuously rearranging the visual signifiers he encounters. He gathers the raw materials for his art from the news, popular media and art history and reconditions them through his own reading, thoughts and feelings. He picks images of famous and ordinary people, including his own relatives, and creates personal narratives of individuals and events. He then lets these narratives flow, allowing one signifier to slip to another, creating a multiplicity of possibilities and a rich, open-ended story. It’s an art of selecting, curating, orchestrating, manipulating. Nate Lowman’s works mirror contemporary American society. That Lowman is deeply indebted to the work of Duchamp, Warhol, Prince and Noland is apparent through his incessant appropriation of everyday objects and images. But he is an artist of his own time — a very different time from that of his heroes (Lowman was born in 1979). He is not merely interested in exhibiting the ‘ready-made’ and creating simulacra of popular culture, as the avant-garde did in the 1960’s and ’70’s, or in the postmodern obsession with the disappearance of authenticity and authorship. In contrast to his predecessors, Lowman is first and foremost preoccupied with narratives and story-telling. Speaking in first person, he invokes real-life stories and offers his own opinion about the people and events within them. Fragments from the media and art historical references become equal constructional elements in his subjective narratives. As all narratives are related to time, notions of time and duration are invariably major elements within Lowman’s work. The inclusion of imagery from different times and contexts in many of his works open up non-linear sequences of reading and invite viewers’ to form an individual sense of temporality. Lowman typically initiates the story-telling with one or more signifiers. These may be signs, words or images and are often drawn from stories circulating in the media — both recent news and out-of-date events. In works like “A Civil Disobedience”, 2005, “Untitled (History of the SUV – No Blond Jokes”, 2005, and “George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People”, 2005, these signs enter into juxtaposition with related imagery which sometimes result in comparisons, and other times in confrontations. The amalgamation of images and signs stirs up a wealth of connotations, sometimes surprisingly emotional in nature, and as more and more connotations come into play, the starting point is either reinforced or abandoned. The same images sometimes re-appear throughout different works creating junctions and synergies, and even a mysterious unity beyond the individual works. Most works take off from a basic concept or theme, which Lowman then develops. In “More or Less” from 2001-2003, he indexes images of more or less well-known men with beards: Jim Morrison, Charles Manson, the Taliban shoe bomber, Kurt Cobain, as well as an image of his own father. Each man has his own history and occupies a different place and moment in time, but appearing together in Lowman’s work one is reminded of their common participation in the same global social space, with links and connections beyond the fact that they have a beard. In “Young and Restless”, 2004, another indexed work, Lowman lists a number of people who have had an accident or a criminal record at the same age. Open narratives are here anchored into a basic idea about something that went wrong. Within these wall-collages, Lowman frequently employs subtle and intelligent image/word twists (often apparent in the relationship between title and work), which reveal the dual visual and verbal mechanism which underpins his work. This mechanism is also at play in his single image works – demonstrated for example in his “Last Supper” painting from 2009, a bleared image of a bus with illegal immigrants from Mexico, hung vertically. Beyond appropriation, the art of Nate Lowman is also very much about subtle transformations. In “Paper Airplane,” a folded twenty dollar bill conjures the image of the burning Twin Towers. In a similar manner, “How to Redeem Your Towed Vehicle (black)” shows tow-truck tools in the shape of a crucifix. Appropriating a glossy colour image from the monthly magazine Vanity Fair (showing Scarlett Johansson, John Ford and Keira Knightley) in “Untitled”, Lowman transforms it into a black, white and brown silkscreen allowing a radical change from glamour to gravity while in the process accentuating the sensuality and the “non-dit” of the scene. Transformation happens not only within the frame of the image but also, and perhaps even more so, through juxtapositions of images, where strange and often absurd associations create a delirious flow. A “hole” in this way may undergo a metamorphosis from a bullet hole to a hole in a golf course to an asshole. In a similar fashion, when you know that his “Oil Riggs Series” from 2005 is a take on, or a new interpretation (transformation) of, the famous re-photographed cowboys by Richard Prince, you understand the twist that triggers the metaphor. Nate Lowman’s works, like his exhibitions, are constellations of signifiers. They consist of an array of images from many different types of materials, including the ready-made, silk-screened paintings, photographs, drawings, and photocopies in different sizes and shapes. On the wall these images combine to form a collage, an assemblage of images with very diverse origins. There is no attempt to create a “trompe l’oeil” effect. In these vast mural-collages there is no linearity nor any guide as how to read them, except for the hints provided by the titles. The images can be read in any order. Lowman does not allow a hierarchy of importance or for one single iconic image to dominate and center the viewer’s attention. Instead it’s the interrelationship between the different images that counts and meaning is created by moving one’s gaze from one image to another. It’s like a patchwork where images are treated on an equal bases. There is no desire to create spectacular constructions: while initiating a basic story, Lowman’s layered narrative structures are left open to be completed by the viewer, not the artist. There is always a real space for the beholder. Lowman adopts an aesthetic approach to his installations, creating constructions that respond to their particular site, the walls and the room in which they are in. There is a low-key, even nonchalant and relaxed attitude to the formations, not least reflected by the nature of the materials used. The chosen colours are typically variations of black and white, or black and brown, and the images used are often blurred thus making them difficult to read, recognize or apprehend. There may be a glimpse of high voltage hues, but overall the aesthetic choices remind us of traditional media and cheaper reproductive techniques like newspapers, black and white TV and photocopies, in contrast to newer colour media and glossy advertisements. This rather casual use of everyday, mundane materials which Lowman directly pins to the wall creates an interesting link to the aesthetics of the Fluxus movement and to artists interested in the notion of dematerialization in the 1960’s. There is an obvious desire to debase the work of art and each pictorial item used within the works. None of the images or items Lowman makes use of are framed or otherwise retouched to remind the viewer of traditional works of art. The artist plays with the banality of the materials and the images and even further tones down the original image by photocopying it, rendering it more mundane and banal looking than before. But even though it appears as if Lowman aims at the expression of a non-style by this use of abject materials, he has in spite of everything created a unique language. It is easy to recognize the style of Nate Lowman. Yet the “Lowman style” is not simply a formal, aesthetic one, but rather concerns a constancy of certain elements found within a totality, although always moving and continuously creating a dialogue between content and its form. Yet while intentionally setting in motion a play on words and images, inviting multiple semantic meanings, there is always, defiantly, an initial idea put into action by Lowman as author of the works. Most of them are social observations and have political undertones. Famous American court cases like O. J. Simpson’s trial and Amadou Bailo Diallo’s case (a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant living in New York City who was killed by 4 policemen, all of whom got acquitted at trial in Albany, New York), appear and reappear in Lowman’s works. Similarly, Lizzie Grubman, (who appeared to have deliberately driven her SUV into a crowd of people outside a nightclub in the Hamptons, injuring 16 people, only to get 37 days in prison), Linda Tripp (a famous figure in the Monica Lewinsky scandal of 1998) and Nicole Simpson occupy central positions in the work “Untitled (History of the SUV – No Blond Jokes)” from 2003. In “INSERT TITLE”, Lowman leaves little doubt as to his views on certain newspapers’ treatment of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in Louisiana, where certain people were accused of “stealing or saving” items from destroyed houses. His treatment of the Mexican illegal immigrants in his aforementioned painting “The Last Supper” is clearly sympathetic. In wall collages such as “More or Less” and “Young and Restless”, Lowman’s treatment of form and content is more subtle, complex and personal. These works reveal his own thoughts and feelings about current international events. In both these works there are constellations of images referring to recent violent news, including views of the Taliban in action, the shoe bomber, the unabomber, the Iraq war (killed soldiers and the sexual abuse of prisoners) and the revolt in Haiti. These images are presented together with photos from a variety of popular events around the globe. The emphasis is away from a world dominated by America and towards a global society and culture. Lowman displays a stronger, clearer political commitment than most artists’ of the previous generation. An acute sense of injustice often reveals itself in the layered narratives. There is no innocence or ambiguity in these works, noticeable both from his manner of presenting the images and from their content. But the overall mood is rarely an outrageous one, rather one of sadness or pessimism, mixed with sarcasm and dark humor. In fact one can say that the aesthetic, formal aspects of the works introduce a perception of darkness and melancholia more than inciting anger.