An air of uncertainty and equivocation pervades Andrea Rosen Gallery’s two-person exhibition of works by Nate Lowman and Karla Black. Over half of the pieces by Lowman on view, for example, are called Title to be determined. One of them, a stretched piece of unprimed canvas, hangs on the wall of the entry gallery. With its accidental wrinkles, dirt and misty areas of fleshy pink and brown, it could have been lying around in the studio catching drips from other works, and looks more like forensic evidence than art.
Such notions of blood spatter are inspired by another of Lowman’s not yet titled pieces -- a pair of clear teller windows that might have come from a bank or a check-cashing store, with openings at the bottoms for exchanging cash, and round speakers in the middle. The windows are pockmarked with bullet holes and dents, like artifacts from a crime scene.
Hanging from the ceiling nearby, Karla Black’s Distance Is a Given (2010) is a crumpled piece of sugar paper streaked with similar pastel colors and contained within clear folded plastic. On its own it could signify weightlessness or even frivolity, but the presence of Lowman’s work conjures up ideas of body bags and packages of drugs.
Included in "Greater New York 2005" and the New Museum’s inaugural show, "Unmonumental," Lowman is represented by Maccarone gallery, and specializes in uninhibited, sarcastic appropriations that draw attention to the perversities of macho American culture. Most recently, he’s been using the smiley face inside the O of OJ Simpson’s apology note to his fans, a morbid association for a saccharine symbol of happiness.
Scottish artist Black, who’s exhibited frequently in European museums, shows at Glasgow’s Mary Mary gallery. Influenced by Minimal and Earth Art, her spatially commanding, site-specific works are made with unusual materials, including lusciously colored plaster powder, soil, makeup, glitter hairspray, toothpaste, nail polish, and Vaseline.
Quietly and emphatically dominating the main gallery, Black’s Don’t Detach, Adapt (2010) is an enormous grid of rectangles hanging from the ceiling. It resembles a gigantic hankie made of sheets of Kleenex folded and glued together, but it’s actually fabricated with tough brown paper laboriously painted on both sides in light pink, blue, green and lipstick red. Some gaps between the rectangles can be seen, as if it were a crumpled shantytown monument prettied up in pastels.
Platonic Solid (2010), a fluffy square of mint green plaster powder spread out on the floor below, could be the remains of another tropical structure. The powder is brushed aside here and there to reveal small flesh colored areas containing irregular turquoise geometric shapes. The sculpture brings a feminized version of Carl Andre’s floor sculptures to mind, but unlike Andre’s metal, Black’s powder is soft enough to be destroyed by a single kick -- so fragile it’s almost defiant.
Lowman’s set of eight rusted outer panels of gas pumps, also called Title to be determined (2010) hangs on two walls, conjuring up overgrown jungles, faraway wars and the death of American car culture. Their human scale also makes them resemble the lids of Egyptian sarcophagi, or even a series of gravestones. The trompe l’oeil painting of an additional rusty panel that hangs in the center of the lineup is painted on a white canvas background that blends in with the wall, negating the distinction between painting and thing.
Two other Lowman paintings could be the Adam and Eve for this decaying world. The female on the left, Anger Management Trilogy #2 (2010), is a thinly painted pastel Warholian version of de Kooning’s iconic woman, invaded by a veil of black paint. Snowman (2010) (on the right) is similarly materialized on unprimed canvas by drops of liquid black paint, his whiteness made real by its opposite. "I’ll be dead soon," is written on a sign on a stick before him, forecasting his disappearance.
Lowman’s melancholy appropriations result in a group of wan slacker readymades that display a pathetic masculinity, while Black’s lusciously feminist pastel substances turn sturdy understated male Minimalism into flamboyant, temporary gestures. Their esthetics, however, are joined by their common interest in evocative debris. Trading allusions to makeup and rust, blown-away powder and melting snow, and bullet holes and permeable walls, they turn the gallery into an endlessly dissolving location where modernism quietly seeps away.
"Karla Black Nate Lowman," May 8-June 19, 2010, at Andrea Rosen Gallery, 525 West 24th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.