Once Upon a Time in the West
David Lowe at Jeffrey Coploff Fine
THE MAGIC OF THIS SMALL gem of
an exhibition ties in David Lowe's ingenius elision of the gap
between the poise and beauty of classical landscape painting
and the wired, media-conscious sensibilities of a contemporary
audience. Borrowed from Sergio Leone's 1969 spaghetti Western,
the title of this ongoing series prepares the viewer for the
cinematic conceit at the heart of Lowe's extended horizontal
presentation, evoking as it does both Cinemascope and Chinese
scroll painting. This is a deeply serious, engaged and eloquent
Luminous stretches of Italian hill country, unshadowed plains
punctuated by the simple geometry of ancient buildings haloed
in exquisite light, poplars accented against pale, unclouded
horizons each lyrical component of conventional landscape
painting emerges from a blackened border or series of borders.
The motif glows against eroded margins with the worn patina
of old stone and the faded pigments of fresco.
Once Upon A Time In The West #230,
oil on wood, 10"x36"
It is a highly evocative device. At one level, the black margins
conjure up the shifting tectonic plates beneath the earth's
crust, the forces that produced the very hills, rocks and outcroppings
we see here as if through a lens. The formula succeeds in suggesting
both the movement of cinematography and, at the same time, the
black drapery that, in western culture, is the necessary symbol
At its simplest, Once Upon a Time in the West is a tribute
to the sheer enchantment of an ever-shrinking Tuscan landscape.
Its greatest satisfaction, however, arises from its strength
as elegy, that mingled act of homage and mourning undertaken
in recognition of the worth of what has been lost. The loss
is greater than that implied by the physical encroachment of
modernity on what once were considered timeless landscapes.
Tuscany serves as a synecdoche for the civilization of the
West. Lowe's chosen title prompts recognition of our own waning
faith in the epic nature of Western achievement. Indeed, we
suffer a bad conscience in regard to even any aspiration to
the heroic which once upon a time created and sustained the
concept of epic. With our cultural neck under the heel of Prufrock's
spawn, our vision is cropped in life as much as in Lowe's freeze-frames.
As Lowe explains, "In some way, I feel my work is about
the death of the idealized humanistic landscape." Yes, up
to a point it is. But it is also, and more compellingly, about
a more profound destruction. Renowned French sociologist and
theologian Jacques Ellul described it twenty years ago: "We
are caught up by kind of doom from which, it seems, nothing
can rescue us
Only the rejection of everything western,
of everything the West has produced, can now satisfy the very
men of the West
We trample on the body of the West and
spit in its face." The moviegoer and the pallbearer are one
and the same.
Steeped in the panorama of Italian art history, from the clear
linear structure of Florentine painting to the darksome spaces
of the Italian metaphysical painters, Lowe owes more to Masaccio
and Masolino, de Chirico and Carrá than to the cinematic
conceit suggested by the series title. Nevertheless, the device
remains both functional and significant, much more than a rhetorical
stratagem. It emerges organically out of Lowe's process: layering
paper over panel, one image over another; sanding it down; working
back into its ghost with oil or watercolor; taking up the sander
again and repeating the process until what is left is not the
scene, but its aura.
There is a wonderful granular quality to these abraded surfaces
which calls to mind Seurat's conte crayon drawings, the way
an image emerges from the weave of the paper; it seeps out as
if from the Shroud of Turin.
Lowe's working methods make a point of the frequently forgotten
fact that the act of painting including representational
painting is a process of invention more than of
imitation. His process shifts our attention from the reality
of the scene to its role in a larger drama.
My enthusiasm for Lowe's work lies in its ability to resonate
on a level more revelatory than his cinematic reference. Still,
the conceit is useful for guiding the viewer to an understanding
of the landscape the scene on view as that point
where the painting begins, not where it ends. With that in mind,
I recommend Tim Griffin's brief essay in the exhibition catalogue.
It is a splendid riff on what Lowe himself has to say about
his intentions and influences.