Jean Lowe: Empire Style
McKenzie Fine Art
March 2004

Based in San Diego, installation artist Jean Lowe draws much of her inspiration from Southern California’s generic suburban landscape, where candy colored stucco strip malls and endless concrete parking lots crisscross through various European architectural modes, disguising themselves as Disneyesque Roman remakes. By linking these outpourings of tastelessness and artificial splendor to the Empire Style decorative arts of nineteenth-century France, Lowe explores the psychological similarities between the American ego and the aggressive arrogance of the Napoleonic era. The projection and increase of power by means of physical expansion and the stylistic recycling of antique grandeur are the shared sentiments that tie together these two chapters in history books.

Marking her first New York solo appearance since a show at Holly Solomon Gallery in 1997, Empire Style, a body of work that was recently exhibited at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, parades Lowe’s fauxtastic recreation of a French parlor room, based on aesthetics that were favored by such famed neoclassical architects/ designers as Charles Percier and Pierre Fontaine in their 1801 publication Recueil de décorations intérieures. Cautiously placed furniture pieces, ornate clocks, pre-romantic statuettes, and an elegantly patterned rug flesh out the detailed set, while three wall murals feed into the illusion of spatial depth. Though the garnished replica seems almost believable if viewed from a distance, a closer examination reveals the objects’ intentionally crude rendition. Employing inexpensive materials, such as enamel paint, papier-mâché, or acrylic on canvas, to reconstruct lacquered mahogany, gilded ornaments, and marble surfaces, Lowe transforms the once intimidating status symbols of wealth into easily accessible and disarmingly cartoonish props. While the untouchable becomes squeezable, an overall sense of kitsch meanders into the viewer’s consciousness, while the subjects of the wall paintings begin to look strangely contemporary.

The compositions, which were originally dominated by idyllic views of lush nature and the open field, have now been replaced with motifs of a Hudson River School gone mad, featuring picturesquely portrayed outlets of Burger King, Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, and Wal-Mart. Depicted from the other end of the parking lot, yet embedded in an epic mountain range, the stores transform into distant shopping temples, the magnetic destinations of browsing pilgrims. In this world, consumerism has not only invaded the natural landscape, but also sucked up its inhabitants. Though the multitude of parked cars suggests otherwise, any human presence is exempt from the scene. Where are the people who could object to the poisoned view, rebel against the bloodless scenery? They are to be found amongst the viewers. As soon as the audience steps into Lowe’s realm of Southern California suburbia, each member will be confronted with what shimmers on the hot horizon line: the foreboding prototype of a universal future landscape in which each patch of nature has been shopped up, forced through the industrial grinder, and paved.

Though the exhibition also includes excerpts from Lowe’s "The Library of Dr. Pohatten," an imaginary book collection of a fictitious doctor concerned with the "cultural pathology" of America, and "Apollo and Daphne," a series of papier-mâché casts referring to Bernini’s Baroque sculpture of the same title, Empire Style clearly steals the show. Part charming interior, part thought-provoking, stomach-twisting social commentary, yet including the necessary humor, Lowe’s work will leave you disheartened, enraged, and inspired, all with a healthy dose of sarcasm.

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