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July 12 - August 16, 2003 at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Santa Monica

by Jody Zellen

“Empire Style," 2003,
mixed media installation.
Selected details of the installation:.

Jean Lowe is a San Diego-based artist whose installation works replicate European Parlor rooms while simultaneously inserting a contemporary point of view. Lowe often paints her imagery directly on the walls and makes objects from papier mache. Her installations have a purposely low-tech aesthetic and are readily accessible, but she makes a deeper political and social statement about consumerism and the impact of development on the natural landscape. For this new installation Empire Style, she transforms the front gallery space into a parlor-like setting. Painted directly on the gallery walls, wrapping around the perimeter are large-scale works mimicking 18th century French landscape painting. The lush landscape and idyllic setting serves as the backdrop for Lowe’s intervention. Alongside depictions of sublime skies enveloping the Alps and greenery surrounding classical structures, Lowe inserts Kentucky Fried Chicken, Starbucks and Bed Bath and Beyond, corporate icons prevalent in the contemporary landscape. Stand in the center of the space, and you’ll feel like you’re in the paintings. Lowe positions us in the parking lot and we immediately identify with the parked cars and familiar mini-mall décor. Yet even as she presents this contemporary landscape she surrounds it with furniture and artifacts from the Napoleonic era.

The Empire Style was prevalent in France during the first part of the 19th century, obtaining its name from the First Empire of France of which Napoleon I (Napoleon Buonaparte, 1769-1821) was the emperor. Traditional classical motifs were supplemented by symbols of imperial grandeur: the Emperor's monogram and his emblem, the bee, representations of military trophies and Egyptian motifs. Furniture was characterized by clear-cut silhouettes and symmetry in decoration. Lowe’s furniture, fashioned from papier mache, is a celebration of funkiness. Rather than identify with the power and wealth of the Empire, she makes her furniture a cartoon version of the original, and in so doing makes the room welcoming rather than off limits. Lowe takes her critique even further. In addition to making papier-mache furniture, she also creates tchotchkes--knick knack sculptures, table top clocks of horse and buggy riders, and stoic soldiers that adorn the faux-Empire Style furniture.

Lowe continues her simulation of classical works in the gallery’s second room. Here Lowe presents a number of wall sculptures based on Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne. In Bernini’s original, Apollo holds onto Daphne just as she metamorphoses into a tree to avoid capture. In Lowe’s versions the tree of each papier mache sculpture is painted to look like a different kind of wood, perhaps a romantic reference to nature lost.

In almost all of her installations Lowe has created works based on a well-known painting or sculptural style--Rococo, Baroque, etc.--and infused these styles with a contemporary twist. As Kate Bonansings has suggested, "By using a visual vocabulary associated with affluence, Lowe subversively comments on modern life." Her works explore the exploited, whether animal, human or landscape; her subjects have ranged from AIDS to the deforestation of the western United States to the laboratory testing of animals. Lowe’s style is purposely and purposefully garish and over the top. Her paintings are as realistic as they are confrontational. The work is at once social satire and cultural critique. She draws from pop art and traditional landscape painting, as well as from the strategies of installation art. And don’t overlook the dash of humor in her approach. This is most apparent in Selections From the Library of Dr. Pohaten. In creating the library of a fictitious doctor she has outfitted his bookshelves with plump oversized books bearing titles like: Accelerating Zen Buddhism, Coping with Your Flashbacks, as well as Encyclopedia of Elective Surgery. Lowe’s simultaneously indulges in the simple charge of trompe l’oeil style painting, while advancing a new perspective on how development has altered the natural landscape.