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Jean Lowe's current installation at The Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, The Course of Empire, importance rests in its geographical relevance and in the works accessibility. Kansas boasts the shop-o-tainment behemoth Cabalas as its highest grossing tourist attraction in the state; this stat is a microcosm for national sentiments regarding the status of consuming. Lowe's WORK casts a warm indignation against the hazards of laze-faire capitalist common sense in a satirical homage consisting of warm touches of the artists broad brushstrokes in large landscape paintings and imperfections in hand constructed papier-mâché furnishings, based on the Salons of early 19th century Paris, invite the casual museum visitor into a highly charged and politically active environment most would have ignored were it not for the appearance of a quaint Rococo tribute. Lowe created her own paradigm in Course of Empire, elevating the reprehensible suburban developments and strip malls into artworks of perverse worship. In Lowe's attack nothing is sacred, the mega beer giant Coors Urn contends for space with a vessel decorated with the logo to the PC toothpaste maker Tom's of Maine Urn. This spirit of sacrilege is exemplified in the book titles from the library in the installation: Intervention Etiquette, Feminist Vegetarian Cookbook, The Plug and the Socket and the Plocket, Bear Attack Their causes and Avoidances, and Have it All by the author of Living with Genital Herpes. I interviewed Lowe during the completion of installing the work to find out for Review readers if the artist shops at Target.
OM: Who were some specific influences on your thinking and
beliefs as a developing artist?
JL: Rather than being influenced primarily by other contemporary artists,
as a young artist I was aesthetically inspired by the decorative arts of the
18th and early 19th centuries, and in terms of content, by an awakening
political/ethical activist sensibility. Ultimately the challenge was to
fuse the two.
OM: Your background followed the flourishing of the
Pattern and Decoration movement in California
JL: Well that movement preceded me. What I was
surrounded by as a grad student was conceptually
oriented work. I went to grad school at UCSD where
painting was an embarrassment and the desire to paint
I knew I wanted to paint so it was challenging. It was
a good challenge to do painting that seemed exciting
and relevant and not just...
JL: I developed as an artist in opposition to
something, rather than being nurtured by a scene I
felt part of.
Oz: When you're an artist
in the institution of school, you tend to react
against what you're confronting.
So you were confronting these conceptual ideas and
people who wanted to...
JL. totally drop the image out. It was photo, text, pristine,
no sign of the artist's hand. Just like (makes sleeping gestures) yawn, yawn.
JL: its not that I'm against conceptual art, I believe
there's room for all kinds of work. Conceptual work
can be seductive and sensual too.
Oz: That gives it depth versus just being dry.
Most of the objects in the installation are handmade.
What is the process of assembling the work
JL: The part of the show "Empire style" was started
in January of this year and I worked on it 7 days a
week 9-5. I don't use help. I just go into the studio.
I always make a maquette so I know what it's going to
look like. After that it becomes this blue-collar
work. Rolling up my sleeves and getting to it.
Oz: what are the ramifications of all the objects
being hand made and built primarily out of papier-mâché
JL: the hand allows me to engage physically with the
work. I enjoy seeing the sign of the hand in artwork.
It's an entry for some people. Others may approach it
first in terms of content, it gives it another
Oz: How did you decide to contrast the American
experience of empire with that of the French as
opposed to that of the roman or English?
JL: Thomas Cole's series of paintings The Course of
Empire, uses the rise and fall of the Roman Empire as
a metaphor for his experience of his contemporary
America. My work has borrowed from
period decoration. It almost seemed
natural to contrast corporate empire with the French in the piece
Oz: the French used the gold leaf.
JL: Well, Empire design in particular was really gaudy and garish and
furniture was about the display of wealth and power. I started
working on this piece when we started going into Iraq.
I was thinking about why we were going to
war there, the business part of it.
The word empire, loaded Napoleonic times and
throughout colonial times the word was used proudly.
Americas considered the only superpower, but few
nationalists would utter the word empire.
JL: well borrowing Cole's title I'm just saying I
think we're doomed!
Oz: implicit in the work is a critique of the
shallowness and vapidity of our society during this
period of late capitalism. Does the genre of
installation, as a non-commodity based artwork give
you more leverage in your critique of global
capitalisms practices and repercussions?
JL: I wouldn't mind if the work was commercial. I'm
drawn to installation because you can tell a story and
it unfolds gradually. You're physically moving through
the piece. I wouldn't hold back on my opinion or
viewpoint regardless of media or format.
OM: Certain animals become domesticated and worshipped
while others are harbored in unsanitary factories
until its time to be killed, packaged and plated up
for dinner. What can we learn from understanding the
arbitrary nature of the classification of other
JL: The only way we can function as a society is through extreme
compartmentalization...and clearly I think we're overdoing it. One
sweet little aniimal is sometimes allowed to sleep on your bed while its
sentient equal lives a life of misery, and its remains wind up being pushed
around on a plate by an overfull diner and tossed into the garbage.
Oz: do you sell pieces out of the installation
JL: I'm so productive I'm happy to move it out in any
way, shape or form. If a collector wants to purchase a
piece I will reconfigure the piece for an installation
in a different piece. Do people buy pieces out of
installations? No not really, but happily, sometimes!
Oz: Reading the titles of the hand made books in the
exhibition I began to laugh out loud.
Especially the 13 large volumes called "simplify your
life". Does the use of humor and satire in your work
a way to present a critique without sounding didactic?
JL: That is my hope.
OM: We talked about the power of humor and satire in your
work that enables messages that can reach people and
create dialogue without being pedantic. What artists
have that effect on you?
JL:I like Nicole Esienmanns use of (often brutal) humor to discuss
Oz: today there is so much rhetoric not just of the
corporations but from the left attacking the
corporations sometimes it seems futile. What hopes do
you hope to convey from the work
JL: I want to bring things up that are non-topics to
most people as a conversation. I'm certainly not
suggesting any solutions. I just want dialogue.
OZ: you reference certain styles in the work, but also
the display of certain styles in institutions that
house the work.
JL: for this show I came out here a year ago to look
at the museum space. I went to the Nelson-Atkins to check it
out while I was here to consider the layout of my show
and what I would be interested in showing. You walk
into the Atkins and there is the grand room and the
period rooms and the decorative arts and I was
thinking about how that place and museums organize
work and that did inform how I set the show up. And
the bookstore is set up where a museum bookstore would
Oz: do you ever shop at target?
JL: I have. When I have choices I try and shop at
local merchants. If there's a family owned hardware
store that has what I need. That is my first choice.
OZ: Target makes it more difficult though
JL: it does
Oz: it becomes a slippery slope.
JL: The whole deal is a conundrum. It's impossible to
live without entertaining a certain level of hypocrisy.
Oz: That is the difficult part of making work that is
political. Your work comes across not as villanizing
these corporations, in the landscape paintings the
strip malls look as inevitable as the mountains in the