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Review: Jean Lowe at Rosamund Felsen Gallery

May 8, 2009 | 11:30 am


Jean Lowe’s paintings of Bavarian palaces made over into big-box discount outlets are as reasonable and believable as they are preposterous. Their wicked mixture of giddy hilarity and deadly sobriety puts them in tune with our times, when things are not what they seem and topsy-turvy absurdity seems to have replaced levelheaded stability as society’s modus operandi.

From the moment you step into the Rosamund Felsen Gallery, it’s clear that you’re in a familiar world, a banal and terrifying place filled with Costcos and Wal-Marts as well as more ostentatious displays of wealth. But something is out of whack.

Titled “Love for Sale,” the show’s 10 small collages, 12 big paintings and 56 prop-style books (on two papier-mâché shelves) put visitors in mind of a future even stranger than the present. Think Vegas’ flashiest casinos retrofitted as factory-second stores. Or Soviet-era chateaux that have fallen on hard times and are forced to sell overstocked leftovers.

In the entryway, a series of page-size collages packs the lavish interiors of baroque castles with aisle upon aisle of discount consumer goods. Polyester slacks and gallon bottles of bleach jostle for your attention among stacks of trash bins, towers of light beer, piles of plastic floor mats and super-sized packages of candy. In the background, marble columns, crystal chandeliers and mural-scale paintings of aristocrats, angels and gods kick the onslaught of visual stimulation into high gear.

Lowe has cut and pasted together her point-and-shoot pictures with none of the sleek seamlessness of digitally manipulated imagery. Jarring shifts exist between one snapshot and another. This recalls the disruptive incoherence of early 20th century Cubism and the head-spinning pace of Italian Futurism. It also harks back to David Hockney’s kaleidoscopic photo-collages from the 1980s, although with more Dr. Frankenstein-style fragmentation and punk chaos.

The photos in Lowe’s collages were made in stores in Southern California and on a summer trip to southern Germany’s most popular castles. They serve as highly detailed studies for the stunning enamels on canvas that fill three adjoining galleries and spill into an office.

Lowe’s paintings are even stranger than her collages. Many measure up to 8 feet long and 6 or 7 feet high. All smooth over the visual turbulence of the collages, creating spaces that induce wooziness.

Labyrinthine passages weave their way between cheap shelves and wood palettes, all stacked with bargain-priced items that are neither glamorous nor extravagant. The ceilings, walls and balustrade-festooned balconies do not follow the rules of perspective but undulate freely, as if under the influence of powerful hallucinogens or buckets of booze. Terra firma seems slippery and unstable.

Lowe’s casual paint handling causes the consumer goods she depicts to look better than they do in life. It also makes the Baroque paintings and ceiling murals look worse. This compromise between high art and low culture suggests that splitting the difference between extremes creates a mutation both queasy and questionable.

The titles of the thick, papier-mâché tomes on Lowe’s pair of bookshelves chart the absurdities of a world turned on its ear. “Regulating Empathy,” “Who’s Who in American Prisons,” “Contemporary Genocide in Perspective,” “The Low-Impact Freak-Out,” “Hooked on Addiction Memoirs,” “Torture Preparedness,” “Foreclosure Etiquette” and “What Would Satan Eat?” make rationality and its opposite into comic co-conspirators whose antics are tacky, true and tuned into the present.

-- David Pagel

Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica, (310) 828-8488, through May 16. Closed Sundays and Mondays.

Above: "Girl Boy." Credit: Grant Mudford/Rosamund Felsen Gallery