BAD DAY MAGAZINE
ISSUE 5, SUMMER, 2009
During the late Bush era, the young New York artist Nate Lowman became known for a succession of artwork "hits": a collection of portraits of bearded men whose identities ranged from terrorists to Nate's father- photographs of burning oil rigs named after characters from the Texan soap Dallas- and shaped canvases that resemble bullet holes. Attracting equal attention from the stern Manhattan art crowd and the city's lively downtown scene, his straightforward visual language has made pertinent work out of America's tragi-comic love/ hate of sex/violence.
ASHER PENN: My girlfriend and I got into an argument about your paintings. I said they were paintings, but she thought they were silkscreens.
NATE LOWMAN: No, they arenít silk-screens. This one [points to bullet hole painting on wall] is a silkscreen. All the bullet hole shaped ones are silkscreens. I mean, a couple of them are hand painted, but not the ones that are stretched like that. I hand painted that pattern a few times.
AP: So when you make a painting, itís more like a one of a kind?
NL: Iíve made the same painting a few times. Like certain images that I want to use, or re-use. But for the most part itís not supposed to be... Iím painting the picture, itís not like I just want to make it bigger. But with the bullet-holes, itís kind of like Warholís flowers, just in the way that one in blue, there is one in pink... theyíre different while the same, and I liked how it could address issues like ďwhich oneís good, and which oneís not as good.Ē There are a couple paintings Iíve done that have had a little silkscreen that I have painted around, but theyíre all small.
AP: Whatís the subject matter of those?
NL: One of them is this Haitian guy. When they ousted Aristede in 2004, I was living in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Unlike most of America we got news about that, because it is a West Indian community, the neighborhood. So I was reading all this news stuff that I would never have known about if I didnít live in the neighborhood. I got obsessed with some of the pictures of the people. The reporting was still really bad because it was really hard to tell who was on what side, and what the pictures meant; you donít know what the fuck youíre look at, but youíre looking at pictures of people. I got obsessed with this one guy who I found in a newspaper. I made a little silkscreen of him [scrolling through iphoto] ...hold on I almost got it. Here it is. This isnít the best example, but this is the dude. Heís upside down in the painting, and you see, heís wearing this crazy hat, and that patch said Nike, like N-I-K-E but in the most ghetto letters. Heís wearing this hat and heís got this bandana coming out. But he has his face covered with a black and white mask and heís got these bug eyes. That paintingís only 20 inches tall.
AP: What does it say?
NL: It says ďSome missionaries have appeared more than half in love with sufferingĒ, which was from an article I had read about leprosy. I thought that since I was treating all this news as a tourist, it was like a self-deprecating self portrait. As if I was in love with these miserable people. Not for knowing who they were but how they looked so seductive. I painted that guy 20 times... here is the hand painted version.
AP: He looks like the Elephant man.
NL: He looks like Michael Jackson too. He looks like everything interesting. He looks like a preying mantis, like an insect. I used that image lots of times. But, besides that one I paint them all. Itís just a different way of processing the information. You sit a lot more with it, think about it. I also like the way the paintings look, and I think itís really obvious that theyíre hand painted, because there are things happening that would never happen if you silk-screened. Like, drips that fall downwards in different directions. Itís really obvious to me, but a lot of people donít look that closely. Well known art critics will come up to me and be like ďthatís hand painted?Ē I Ďm like ďYeah, duh, do you look at art? Have you looked at paintings before?Ē But itís really not that obvious to them. Or if you see it on a Jpeg, youíre less likely to know. I feel like most people look at art that way now... Do people go to galleries anymore? And people write about it like that too. I thought there were fact-checkers out there. Anyways, silk-screening can be such a letdown. Youíre like, ďOh this looks like a fucking skateboard graphic from when I was a teenagerĒ or ď Oh, this looks like a WarholĒ. Thereís very little in between. You basically end up with an inked out bath-tub.
AP: How did the bullet hole thing come about?
NL: Theyíre just magnets that you put on your car. I just was really into them. A lot of my art is about violence and crime. I also really like shaped canvases. Iíve always loved Ellsworth Kelly, I love all the Brazilians, the Neo concrete People like Lygia Clark. I always wanted to make these shaped canvas objects but I didnít want to make a Blinky Palermo with jagged edges; I wanted to make something else. The bullet holes were a good opportunity to have the cultural things that Iím interested in come together with that. It was an experiment to see how you can get pretty... Itís like all modern art, itís really insane to make, and itís kinda pretty and itís really involved. There's all this stuff. Itís not just like another Xerox or another thing I was using. It was a step in a different direction. I still wanted it to be about stuff, not just be like ďthis looks like art and itís on the wallĒ I wanted it to have content.
AP: So you used to do photocopies?
NL: The first shows I was in sometimes it was just a Xerox of text from an article. Or just a big overblown one which would be just a straight line of text going up and down. Or that with a little painting. Itís all about language, the way they commingle. I donít think Iím a painter, Iím definitely not a sculptor, even though Iíve made a few sculptures. Iím not a graphic designer. Theyíre all different layers of language that either function really well together or are at odds with each other and you figure out a way to make them all open up with each other to make them more interesting. So like this picture and this rendering of it, photocopy or paint or whatever or both, and its stuck on a tire maybe that makes it more interesting, or maybe it doesnít work. Itís about building up the different languages and letting them fail and letting them succeed.
AP: But youíre driven by your content, right?
NL: Art can only ask questions about content. I donít think art really ever holds content. Like art objects. Content exists in the world but it doesnít really exist in art. Art can only allude to content, the same way that journalism can almost represent content, when itís good. Whereas art is like a retarded half brother. It canít hold it. It doesnít even stand a chance.
AP: You said your work is about crime and violence. Is that what you look for in journalism?
NL: Iím American. Americaís built on violence. Itís about killing people and taking land and private property and getting .Itís all manifest destiny; totally brutal. From smallpox to automobiles itís about violence and destruction. The way we understand each other is through violence. Like riots. Race riots, and serial killers and OJ Simpson. Like the way I understood race relations growing up in the 90ís was Rodney king and OJ Simpson, because Iím from California and thatís how you learn how black people and white people do or donít relate to each other. In a general, cultural way in terms of the information you read. I had Black and Asian and Mexican friends growing up, but you have a personal relationship to people and then you have a cultural relationship and itís always going back and forth. All these things, its how you build a sensibility about the world.
AP: So where do you look for this information?
NL: Iím a pack-rat. I like the free newspapers they give out in the mornings on the subway. AM and Metro. They have the worst pictures but sometimes the pictures are great. I feel like printed news is like sculpture now, itís so unnecessary. Especially books. They are just sculptural objects. You get your information from the internet. Itís so much easier. I donít know, itís in a weird vacuum. I still enjoy the tactility of reading magazines and newspapers, and it does feel quieter than reading news on whatever.com because thereís less blinking shit.