Your Place in the Multiverse: Jean Lowe

Your Place in the Multiverse by Jean Lowe, Baby Grand, 2006, Enamel, marine enamel on cloth-mâché, fiberglass. Variable dimensions Courtesy of Laguna Art Museum

Your Place in the Multiverse: Jean Lowe


Written by Liz Goldner
In a world proliferating with contemporary art, with its variety of styles, subject matter and materials—an art world that often surprises, cajoles and sometimes shocks viewers—“Your Place in the Multiverse” is even more surprising than most exhibitions.

From the moment we enter the introductory “Discount Barn” installation at the show’s entrance—with its multitude of papier- and cloth-mâché items, appropriating and parodying discount products, including junk food, stain removers, hair dyes and body building kits— this exhibition reveals its uniqueness. It is also the first Jean Lowe museum show since 2000.

Several other installations display kitsch art, parodies of self-help movements, American consumerism, along with ornamental European-inspired art, especially German Baroque and French Empire styles, elaborate oriental rug designs, and even contemporary psychiatry through text.

Lowe, described as a pop/conceptual multimedia artist, displays here her talent, training in figurative art and expertise in painting, sculpting and installations. Her abilities are so impressive, she could create primarily classically themed paintings if she chose to. She instead infuses her work with out-of-the-box wit, satire and insights into culture—traditional and contemporary—while entertaining and provoking viewers.

Her realistic-looking Baby Grand Piano, made of marine enamel on cloth-mâché with fiberglass, situated on her painted cardboard Persian carpet, is an example. “A grand piano is an instrument that signals class and taste,” she explains. “Here I’ve reduced it to being a cooler serving chips and drinks (bags and cans are stuffed under the piano lid). It’s high brought low, and the piano offers up immediate gratification as a snack dispenser.” Before creating the piano, she visited a music store and photographed pianos from all angles, including from underneath, confounding the sales people.  

Several magnificent rugs made of cardboard and paint, inspired by pictures in auction catalogs, along with papier-mâché potted plants, decorate this exhibition. Here also are posters proclaiming, “Seafood Sale Last Call” and “Veterans Day Sellabration.” Other posters decry the murder of animals so that we can eat them. (Lowe and her husband are strict vegans.)

The pièce de résistance of this show is a room with portraits of Pablo Picasso, Willem de Kooning and Francis Bacon, painted directly onto the wall. Each painting, as part of one installation, displays the mid 20th century cubist and abstract expertise of the individual artists, “accurately appropriating the artists’ work,” Lowe says. The portraits also reveal her diverse and exceptional artistic ability. She adds that painting them onto the wall adds to their “ephemerality.”

Lowe expresses her unusual wit through hand-written text art on yellow pads, presumably written by doctors and psychiatrists. One comment refers to a patient offering a blowjob. Another discusses a patient’s pointless desire to get plastic surgery.

The photos of her papier- mâché books are more humorous. The “Men’s Interest” section includes “Hot Buttered Cop Porn,” “Essays on Modesty” and “Way to Escape from Quicksand.” The “Motivation and Self Help” section includes “Joie de Vivre – What it is and How to Get it.” And the “Cookbook” section includes “The Battered Woman’s Cookbook.”

An interview with Jean Lowe in her SoCal home, with its hand-painted upholstered furniture and area rug made from numerous thrift-store rugs, reveals some of the inspiration for her unusual artwork.

Tell me about your early life, where you grew up, and your early artistic influences and activities.

Lowe: I grew up in Palo Alto when vestiges of the apricot orchards that blanketed Santa Clara County still remained. Artistic endeavors were always a great pleasure for me, drawing and painting or attempting something oddball like trying to make sandals, or sneaking into the empty Varsity Theater in downtown P.A. and putting on an improvised performance on stage with a group of friends. And I was intrigued with work by Claus Oldenburg and Red Grooms.

Contemporary work that I saw in Europe when I was 12 and didn’t understand kind of infuriated me in the best way. It made me curious about assigning value to things that just seemed random at the time. This might have included work by Christo and Joseph Beuys. I remember getting a bit hot under the collar.

Please describe your parents. How did your father’s career as a psychiatrist influence you as an artist?

Lowe: I bet a lot of children of psychiatrists have crazy stories. My father had a private practice, but enjoyed his work with incarcerated men through the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. He was respected by his clients and colleagues. Living with a respected, complicated father definitely made me interested in not taking things at face value, to look around the back side of an issue or accepted norm. That perspective definitely informs my work.

In addition to raising five children (I’m the youngest), my dear mother and father both were artistic in their own ways. But I wasn’t encouraged to pursue the arts as a profession. When I told my dad that I’d made art my major at UC Berkeley, he responded with “Oh darling, what for?” So that was my original struggle. How do you make art in a way that’s not purely self-indulgent?

Tell me about graduate school.

Lowe: At UC San Diego, in the tight girdle of a very conceptually oriented and largely anti-painting department, I started to get my bearings. Visual art is a language and what did I want to talk about? It was identifying the issues that I felt were important to explore, our relationships with other species, environmental concerns, hypocrisy, pretension (both in society and embodied in artwork). Career-wise, I’ve explored the same material consistently but from constantly shifting angles and with different formal approaches. 

Can you outline some of the major things from your career?

Lowe: I was ambitious when I was younger. Being represented by Gracie Mansion in New York City was huge for me, showing with Rosamund Felsen in L.A. and being part of her group of artists was an honor, showing with McKenzie Fine Art in New York in her beautiful space was a dream, and working with Mark Quint and his amazing team in La Jolla is truly inspiring and fun. I’ve also had two museum retrospectives, “The evolutionary cul-de-sac” at MCASD in 2001 and “Your Place in the Multiverse,” which traveled to its happy perch at Laguna Art Museum.

What are your future goals?

Lowe: I hope to keep it interesting, continue to contribute to ongoing conversations about art, and to outlive my dog. She’s 15, so that’s an easy one, knock on wood.

Laguna Art Museum
307 Cliff Dr, Laguna Beach, CA 92651

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