Once Upon a Time in the West
David Lowe at Jeffrey Coploff Fine Art

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 exhibition.

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.

landscape painting
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 of grief.

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.


February 1999

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