Inside artist Nate Lowman’s ‘Before and After’ at the Aspen Art Museum
IF YOU GO …
What: Nate Lowman’s ‘Before and After’
Where: Aspen Art Museum
When: Friday, Dec. 15 through June 10, 2018
How much: Free
More info: www.aspenartmuseum.org
More info: Lowman’s exhibition is one of five opening in the msuseum on Friday, including Dara Friedman’s “Mother Drum,” the group shows “Ritual” and “Untitled Installation conceived by Robert Gober,” and Zoe Crosher’s “Prospecting Palm Fronds.”
Spend a little time with the 60-plus paintings by Nate Lowman in his new exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum and you’ll see some familiar faces — celebrities such as Julia Roberts and Joan Rivers and Scarlett Johansson (and a painting of Madonna’s extended middle finger) along with images from the darker side of American mass culture like O.J. Simpson and Nicole Brown Simpson and Terry Schiavo. There are smiley faces and plays on car air fresheners and the Apple Mac logo. There are straightforward jokes and there is some simple beauty.
It’s a big show, filling both ground-floor galleries at the museum with paintings stacked to hang above other paintings — some 20 feet up on the wall. Others are placed ingeniously in spaces where no work has hung before: two long, horizontal paintings sit high above the large windows that look out on Hyman Avenue. A triptych turns a corner of the gallery, asking the viewer to move around it to take it all in.
“The proportions of the gallery are nice, so you can hang things in weird places and still enjoy them,” Lowman said walking through the exhibition Wednesday morning, wearing pajama pants and a flannel shirt with Converse sneakers (one black, one red).
It’s not a career survey, per se, but the show, titled “Before and After,” ended up spanning Lowman’s career — going back to works finished in 2003 and up to pieces completed as recently as just a few weeks ago. Most of the pieces have been borrowed from private collections in the U.S. and Europe. Lowman and Aspen Art Museum director Heidi Zuckerman organized the show around depictions of desire in his work.
“It’s funny because we never talked about the idea that the show would be any kind of a survey,” Lowman explained. “She had a lens through which she wanted to select and they happened to date from the present to the beginning of my career.”
“Before and After” is Lowman’s first solo show with the museum, but he’s had work in a group show here previously and gave a talk at the museum several years ago. He’s also visited friends’ openings here. This show is the culmination of years of discussions between Lowman and Zuckerman about doing a project in Aspen.
“It’s the show that Heidi and I dreamed up together,” he said.
Many of the works are inkjet prints of images Lowman has appropriated from newspapers and magazines — they’re all manipulated in various ways, cropped, cut and stained and stretched and reborn as something new. Visual rhymes ring throughout the show, which includes several new works that function as riffs on other pieces hanging nearby. One piece, titled “Before and After,” was born out of a tiny newspaper ad for an eyelift, showing a model before and after the procedure. The ad is blown up to poster size, creating large pixels. The piece next to it is a photo of “Before and After” — pocked with paint, further manipulated and run through Lowman’s funhouse mirror vision.
While some of the works are prints blown up so large that they’re heavily pixelated, others Lowman has meticulously hand-painted with dots on top of painted images to mimic a pixelated effect.
Many are covered in Pollock-styled drip paint, which Lowman gathers on canvases simply by leaving them on the floor of his art studio for extended periods (some have picked up footprints from his Chuck Taylors).
Lowman said he is interested in pop culture and the age of reality television, which he traces back to the broadcast of O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. An adolescent during Simpson’s 1995 trail, Lowman said the media circus shaped his ideas around tabloids and media and, as he described it, his “understanding or misunderstanding of what American culture means.”
“So I’m interested in it historically, because it comes from an angle that is actually criminality,” he explained. “This has always been a thing. If you think about memorabilia, there’s always that poster of Frank Sinatra’s mugshot, which is as famous as any image around his persona or celebrity.”
O.J. turns up in Lowman’s most well-known body of work: large-scale smiley-face paintings that collage together countless different representations of the ubiquitous smiley-face drawing we’ve all made (and that these days we send around in emoji). Lowman’s first smiley-face painting, from 2009 and included in the Aspen Art Museum show, began with an image Lowman took from an O.J. Simpson letter to fans where the disgraced football star fashioned the “O” in O.J. as a smiley-face.
“It held this total nervous insanity,” Lowman said of the O.J. signature. “Then it evolved or devolved into this series of different smiley-face drawings.”
The O.J. signature is upside down in a sea of other smiley faces from sundry sources — a photo of dog feces in the smiley-face shape, one from a vintage “I’m Thumb-body” pin, another from a pattern on a key, and one from a note from a cousin’s Christmas card.
Along with the original smiley-face painting, the show includes a manipulated and reconfigured copy of it.
Lowman has recently turned his eye — and his paintbrush — toward the glut of photography in the selfie age. In a few of the works, Lowman painted on top of banal cellphone photos he took in parking lots — one of a man in a jacket emblazoned with the logo of a bail bonds office, the other of an American flag bumper sticker — to create some gorgeous, arresting imagery.
“Sometimes I’m interested in that idea of how to translate not-very-good photograph and make it into an interesting painting,” he said. “We live our lives with an increasing volume of shitty photographs that we take on our phones. So how do I make this excess of images interesting and useful?”
First Lady Michelle Obama shows up in the most comedic of the pieces in the show. Lowman sewed a photo of Obama swinging her arm — at an event promoting her Let’s Move! program for kids — onto several paint-drip-covered canvases that had covered the floor of Lowman’s New York studio. It looks as if Obama is splattering the paint herself.
“I was laughing,” he recalled of making it. “It’s like casting her as Jackson Pollock. And I love the idea of Michelle Obama being the great American post-war artist.”
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