Interview with Constance Lowe
Throughout her career, Constance Lowe has used a range of materials to explore the intersections between nature and the domesticated and industrialized world. Lowe’s work in this dual exhibition with Nate Cassie titled Minding the Gaps presents a collection of her work from the mid to late ’90s to the early 2000s. Together, they offer a look into the beginning of Lowe’s exploration of nature and artifice, a theme that has she continued to explore throughout her artistic career. During the installation of this show, I sat with Lowe to gain a greater understanding of this combination of past works and how they can be understood in the context of her current work. Minding the Gaps opens on June 5th, and will be on view until July 27th.
What themes and concepts are you exploring in this body of work?
A consistent concern, particularly in this body of work, is with the confluence, conflicts, and contradictions between the human-constructed world and that which slips out of our control. For example, the cross boxes, which I think of as a plus sign or a neutral geometric shape are made of plywood, which is a heavily processed wood product, with leather (an animal product), and paint added. There is always that kind of dichotomy, either in the materials like the wool blankets or in the imagery itself. The other consistent feature of my work is the arrangement or assembling of different parts. A lot of this work was originally shown in an installation where there was a dialogue among the pieces, so they are individual artworks that also have a relationship with the pieces around them.
I was just about to ask about this. In some of your recent work, specifically your Air to Ground series you’ve looked at the intersections of nature and artifice. So you kind of answered my question, this body of work does engage this theme.
I think all of my work engages that theme in one way or another.
Do you think these pieces explore this theme differently here from your other work? Or do you think each piece is an individual exploration of this theme?
Here there is only one blanket piece, so it seems very individual. But if you go to my website and look at the work under Appetite for System you’ll see three more blanket pieces accompanied by fabricated wooden forms that show a broader connection. A good way to talk about the blanket piece shown here is that it is both an object and a picture plane. It has a surface treatment. The flower images are actually decorative upholstery fabric that I painted over, so it was less decorative, and then cut out and ironed onto the blanket. Also, there is some calfskin behind some of the grommets. On all of the blanket pieces, there is some kind of surface treatment similar to bandaids or wounds on the surface. A lot of the work from Appetite for System that is in this current show toys with the idea of functionality and subverts it. For example, in a pinch, you could still use the blanket to keep yourself warm. But some of its function has been perforated, denied, or subverted in some way. Whereas the vanities and the cross boxes are invented objects that seem functional. And again, the vanities could function as actual shelves if you needed one.
They are on the brink of decorative and functional.
So how did you begin working with these unconventional materials?
I have always been interested in the physical, psychological, and conceptual nature of the materials I use. Prior to this body of work, and prior to coming to San Antonio, I had been doing some abstract paintings because I am also really attracted to abstraction, particularly geometric abstraction. I have never felt that it was something I could just commit myself to, to the exclusion of other things, and I am still obviously playing with that idea. So I was painting these small geometric abstractions with objects attached to them that had some basis in the natural world. I had a pair of deerskin gloves, a little headband made of feathers, and a large framed spider from a biological supply company. There were these juxtapositions in that work of those objects that started out belonging to a living thing that were then processed into something for human consumption or human use. That started when I was at a residency at Yaddo in 1991.
This theme has really continued and developed in your work and it is interesting to see how you engage with and think about your materials in relation to your concept. They are very bound together.
It is kind of back and forth too. Sometimes the object presents itself first and sometimes the idea presents itself first. When I first moved here, the military surplus stores were different from what they have kind of morphed into now, they had a lot more real military stuff in there and less new, survival-esque stuff. So I discovered the blankets before I knew what I wanted to do with them but really liked the material. If you turn the blanket piece in this show over it will say “U.S.” on the other side. But in the case of the chair piece, I knew that was the object I needed so went looking for it. On that shopping excursion, I also discovered a chaise longue that I also had reupholstered and outfitted with small leather straps.
In some of your earlier interviews, you’ve talked about your Midwestern upbringing and how that informs your work. How has that informed the concepts you are interested in and the materials you use?
I don’t know if Midwest has all that much to do with my work directly, but it certainly has informed my sensibility in some way, because artists are so often attracted to something that has a root in our personal experience. Critics have remarked on it, but I don’t think I set out looking for it specifically. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever talked much about my geographical upbringing so much as the fact that because of where I grew up created that except for its connection to the land satellite image that inspired my “Air to Ground” series. I think that my concerns would have been similar if I grew up on the east coast and my family’s farm had been in New Jersey. What I have said in previous interviews relates more to my age or my generation. Growing up we had a lot of leftovers from World War II. Both of my grandfathers served in the war. My dad’s father ran a prisoner-of-war camp in France so he had a bunch of objects like clocks that were made out of bullet casings. We used army blankets when we went on family camping trips. It was always around. My family was not a military family, it’s just everyone served during World War II. So the military blankets, as well as growing up with horses, being involved with animals, informed my interest in the materials I work with. That kind of material culture is a better way to describe my influence rather than the Midwest.
Looking back to this body of work, how do you think your exploration of nature and abstraction have informed your current work?
I think one of the things I realize now looking back is that this intersection is an ongoing interest. I probably started exploring abstraction most directly in the 90s. I never looked purely at abstraction by itself, but it’s a relation to some kind of representational or natural element. I’ve always been really interested in what abstraction could contribute, how it could add a different layer of perception or a different layer of cognition. The overriding interest is coming from my interest in dualities and attempting to create a synthesis. Exploring the intersections, agreements, or struggles between opposing things that turn out to be not so oppositional. I think the dichotomy between the natural and the civilized provides a framework from which a lot of things can happen because there are so many layers that are available.
There’s so much to work within that intersection, and a lot of your work sits in between it.
It allows me to both work with interests that I have in the world personally and the interests I have in the world artistically. It gives me a lot of resources that way.
This dichotomy provides both material and conceptual options for you to explore.
Exactly. Also, the conceptual ones interest me in other ways as well, as a person and not just as an artist.
Well, thank you for meeting with me!
Recorded: May 30, 2019
Interviewed and Written by: Kristina Reinis
Minding the Gaps will be on view June 5 – July 27, 2019