Trash Treasure: Nate Lowman’s Selective Memory


New York artist Nate Lowman’s iconophilic paintings, sculpture and bricolage have a story of cultural alienation to tell. “I love language, and I love the failure of language,” Lowman told A.i.A. “To me, a drop of oil paint or a xerographic dot are the same thing—they’re all just language.” Just as well: all the works for this upcoming show are still nameless, as titles are the last step.


Late last week, Lowman and his assistants were spread over two large studios (one the artist’s own, in Tribeca; the other a Chinatown loaner from his dealer), preparing work for a behemoth, painting-heavy exhibition, “Trash Landing,” opening May 7 at Maccarone and Gavin Brown’s Enterprise. The two-gallery premise is a gambit by the two dealers that last fall featured Rob Pruitt.

The 32-year-old Lowman has shown consistently for the past decade, and makes work that hails from the twin temples of pop-culture atrocity and political disaster, with detours into environmental destruction. These have included Xerox collages examining Serena Williams’s “sweet stalker,” Albrecht Stromeyer (Why I Love Serena, 2003), and sculpture consisting of rusted gas station pumps that acts as a metaphor for the war in Iraq (The Never Ending Story, 2007). 

Less obviously, the artist has used the language of mediation to create a vocabulary of recurring images—continually playing from his own picture deck to build an alternative iconography. Recalling artist Nancy Spero, whose invented dictionary of hieroglyphs substituted for semiotics, Lowman’s catalogue of images suggests a desire to say something, repeatedly, about culture that goes beyond words. Since 2001, for example, he has reused the same image of a topless Nicole Brown Simpson (derived from a topless image that was allegedly sold to a tabloid by Brown Simpson’s own sister). Several paintings based on this image will be included in “Trash Landing.”

“I make paintings of certain images because I want people to remember them,” says Lowman. “That’s when I make a painting of someone like Oliver North [the infamous Iran-Contra conspirator and Marine, whose portrait Lowman exhibited in 2004 at Ritter/Zamet in London]. I wanted to be like: Remember him?”

This show features a herd of images from Lowman’s recent popular series of variously sized, nearly indistinguishable paintings that reinterpret de Kooning’s Marilyn Monroe (1954). Lowman’s Marilyns come to life on unprimed linen, the figure rendered with lush daubs of oil in ’80s surfboard hues. On top of the figure, Lowman paints a layer of striated high-gloss black alkyd paint, giving the image the look of a multiple-generation photocopy (i.e., the “Xerox of a Xerox” esthetic of punk show flyers and zines).

Lowman has used alkyd—a dense, shiny paint that, in Lowman’s hands, mimics a glossier version of newsprint and Xerox—consistently for the last decade, and his use of the medium has often made visual analogies between antique copiers and skin. This series also riffs on de Kooning’s famous statement: “Flesh was the reason oil paint was invented.” Lowman’s alkyd application gives each painting a machine-made, reproduced appearance, suggesting that, in contemporary culture, the way we see skin appears less like oil and more like inkjet.

If Marilyn is the 20th century’s iconic blonde, doomed to live eternally in an image, she’s also a woman estranged from her born identity. Lowman says he came to the subject more as a meditation on a culture of violence and began using this specific image almost by chance. Marilyn, whose image represents a suggestively acquiescent sexual conquest maddeningly out of reach, has equally become a prized fetish object for collectors (everything from her chest X-rays to the couch from her psychiatrist’s office have been put up for sale, purportedly in honor of her legend). “I don’t have a connoisseur’s interest [in this material],” says Lowman. He’s never read a biography of Monroe, “and the only films I saw of hers were The Misfits and her singing ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President.’ I’m more interested in other peoples’ interest in these [people].”

Lowman will also show landscape paintings, mostly depicting disaster imagery—both man-made and natural, including Iceland’s erupting volcano and a house in Brazil floating away in a flood. These are made with a technique he developed by spraying oil paint through an automotive paint gun, and subsequently layering alkyd on top. The artist proposes a different sublime, one in which nature does not prevail—his images of catastrophe seem quotidian rather than heartbreaking. Lowman’s sublime is a horror at the hand of man-the guilt of creating Frankenstein mixed with a keen sense of banality. “With that volcano, all anyone ever talks about is inconvenience,” says Lowman.

Lowman will light the gallery with fluorescent gels, to create the effect of the Magic Hour, the first and last hour of sunlight in the day. “I talked to a lot of cinematographers about how to get the light to look perfect, but then I decided to do it in a more ghetto way,” he explains. “A gesture like that has to be straightforward, or it dissolves into the decorative.”

Lowman has consistently employed text in his work. On a large, unprimed canvas, the artist has copied the poetic phrase: “He’s running on a treadmill in front of the mirror in his gym. She’s coming home from work behind the wheel of her Smartcar. Will they meet?” The text comes from The Coming Insurrection, a call-to-arms (and Glenn Beck’s bête noire) written by anonymous political collective the Invisible Committee in the wake of Paris’s 2005 banlieue riots. Written as though the group comprised the philosophical grandchildren of Adorno and Horkheimer and the Weather Underground coming home to roost, the text “really describes contemporary alienation in the best way,” says Lowman.