Lowly resume

 

The Sheltering Sky

by Fred Camper
from the
Chicago Reader, January 14, 2000

 

We live in an unmistakably secular age, yet Tim Lowly's exhibit at the
Chicago Cultural Center radiates a naive, almost atavistic faith-most
powerfully in three large paintings (the show also includes three
smaller paintings, a drawing, and an installation) that present the
ordinary physical world as mysteriously extraordinary.

At times Lowly's depictions take familiar forms. Two people climb a
rocky path in Light as Air, seeming to ascend into the white, enveloping
light of the sky. What saves the picture from cliche is the particular
skill with which it's painted: Lowly gives the path and the figures a
mixture of intense physicality and airy weightlessness. From a distance
the rocks seem a dynamic congelation of paint with the hardness of
stone, but at close range that solidity disappears in a blur. Tree
branches, rendered as lacy filigree against the white sky, seem at once
aggressively outlined and on the point of dissolution. The colors are
nearly monochrome -- almost all shades of gray and white -- and the whitish
reflections at the edges of rocks imply that the sky's light is
omnipresent. Together the unexceptional figures climbing the path and
the nondescript setting suggest that, if this is an intimation of
transcendence, then transcendence lies in the ordinary.
........

Though he doesn't wish to identify his art with any particular theology,
Lowly was raised a Christian and remains one today. Born in North
Carolina in 1958, he moved with his family as a child to South Korea,
where his parents served as medical missionaries. A longtime Chicagoan
who recently moved to Galena, Lowly bases his paintings on photographs;
Light as Air comes from a snapshot he inadvertently took of his parents
on a hiking trip in Korea.

Of course painting from snapshots is one way of keeping his images
rooted in the physical world, though the sensuality Lowly imparts to
ordinary, even inanimate objects heightens their physical presence.
Giving his forms just enough detail to seem precise but just enough
softness to be suggestive, he creates a tension between that which is
reproducible by photograph and that which is influenced not by optics
but by faith. Indeed, the installation here -- Untitled (on Quilt), a row
of three boxes -- is marked by two dimly visible texts at either end: "What
you see" and "What you believe" suggest that, while vision and faith may
be linked, they're not necessarily identical.

The work with the greatest immediate impact is Temma on Earth, four
panels together depicting a single scene. Eight by twelve feet, it shows
a girl lying on the ground -- Temma, the Lowlys' only child. Now 14, she
has been severely disabled, mentally and physically, since birth.
Commenting on the work's "monumental" scale, Lowly says, "There's
something very intriguing about what happens when you take a person who
in the view of much of our culture is a nonperson and depict her in a
fashion traditionally reserved for the gods."


....click

 

Part of the painting's power comes from its almost confrontational
physicality. The "earth" that Temma is lying on -- dirt, stones, small
plants -- is painted with even greater precision than the rocks in Light as
Air
; their palpability and detail reminded me a bit of Albrecht Dürer,
whose prints and drawings also celebrate a physicality that does not
exclude the spiritual. Temma on Earth is based on some 30 photographs of
the scene, which Lowly collaged using Photoshop. Each was taken looking
down on that spot of ground but from a slightly different vantage
point -- Lowly's attempt to get away from one-point Renaissance
perspective, with its implication of art created for a single viewer. "I
wanted an image where there is no single point of reference," Lowly
says, and indeed each clump of soil and rock has its own uncanny
presence. One is confronted not with a rationally organized view but
with overwhelming, panoramic detail as well as Temma's unusual figure.
Perhaps the overwhelming detail is in part a reflection of the constant
care Temma requires from her parents; perhaps it also represents Lowly's
attempt to depict her vision of a world she cannot negotiate.

The painting's ambiguous title -- "earth" can mean our planet as well as
the ground -- suggests that Temma might have an existence elsewhere. Since
there's no evidence Lowly believes in alien abductions, this implied
other habitation most likely refers to her soul. Yet what's most
striking about the painting is its underlying animism: the soil and
vegetation as well as Temma have a presence beyond their physical
existence.

Temma on Earth contains more color than Light as Air, but its pale tans
and blues and greens -- Lowly simply added pigment to acrylic gesso -- both
unify the work and suggest one remove from photographic reality. Further
distancing the scene from traditional representation are Lowly's
foreshortened space and multiple perspectives. Ultimately our sense that
this painting lies beyond a single viewer's grasp hints at a pervasive
but invisible power behind physical things. I was reminded of the
recently deceased filmmaker Robert Bresson, who loved working in black
and white -- he made color films late, and his first one tended toward
monochrome -- and whose foreshortened compositions flattened his scenes but
suggested a transition to a domain beyond naturalism: more than once his
films conclude with stripped-down images that imply there are realms
outside photographic depictability.


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Lowly's Woman by Water is ultimately the most powerful work here, in
part because, among the three large paintings, its subject is the most
mundane. In the center of four horizontal panels about 16 feet wide is a
gray-haired woman -- Lowly's mother, sitting on the bank of the Lincoln
Park lagoon, looking perhaps a bit sad. Here Lowly has painted from
multiple photographs taken from a single position, yet the effect is
similar to that of Temma on Earth: the accretion of detail is
overpowering, and the most mundane things have an eerie suggestiveness.
As Lowly's apparently precise, ordinary forms seem to dissolve -- the
woman's black-and-white running shoes, a street sign outside the frame
but reflected in the water, even the tan soil and occasional rocks --- they
evoke a world on the brink of transformation. Because the land slopes
upward we can't see very far into the distance; the reflection in the
lagoon's calm water doubles what we see, at once restricting the scene
and, by adding sky, introducing a space beyond it. A concrete gate with
metal bars-apparently some kind of storm sluice -- both suggests a passage
out of this somewhat claustrophobic space and denies entry. Pregnant
with imminent transformation, the entire scene seems poised on a
knife-edge between the physical and the spiritual.

Lowly's father died recently, and Lowly says that this group of works is
"at least indirectly to do with meditations on life and death." In light
of the show's title, the artist arguably sees his mother in Woman by
Water
as posed in this world while contemplating the next. But even for
those who don't believe in the soul or an afterlife, Lowly's vivid
pebbles and soil can be meaningful: he reminds us that one need not
journey to exotic lands or remote areas to discover a link between
seeing and feeling -- all the highest possibilities of existence are with
us now, at every moment.

 

Copyright © Fred Camper 2000

Fred Camper is a Chicago based critic.

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