He used to cover gallery walls with bullet holes. But he’s traded in the gun for a smiley face. Has the bad boy artist finally gone soft? Or is the smiley face smiling about something weird and terrible?
Leo Fitzpatrick attempted to interview Nate Lowman twice before they finally got it right. The first time was rushed. The second time they got way too wasted and spent most of the exchange looking at YouTube videos in the downtown New York City studio Lowman shares with fellow artist Dan Colen. (Sample of transcript: LF: hat’s the guy I’m going to grow up to be. I’m gonna turn into that guy one day, trying to sell Winnebagos on TV but forgetting his lines, and he freaks out and goes, “Fuck everything.”) The third time they met a little more soberly and managed to get to the bottom of Lowman’s series of smiley-face paintings and drawings that he’s making for his solo show this month at New York’s maccarone gallery. The new subject matter is a bit of a departure, since the 30-year-old artist’s previous work has involved screen-printed bullet holes and ironic bumper stickers turned into devious linguistic assaults. Fitzpatrick and Lowman are, in fact, very close friends, and they can often be found deejaying together at various clubs around the city. If you ever run into either of these guys in the morning, it usually means they’ve been up all night working.
LEO FITZPATRICK: What attempt are we on now?
NATE LOWMAN: This is the third time, which will be the charm.
LF: A lot of people probably think it’s easy for two friends to get together and do an interview. Is it hard for you to talk about your work?
NL: Yeah, it’s hard. The work is on your mind so much that when someone asks you to talk about it, it’s like, “Which part?” I have all these scribbles of smiley faces in my studio that friends do when they come over—yourself included. Try to explain that project to people. I’m afraid the more I talk about it and try to make sense of it in my mind, the more I’ll jinx it. My friend Jeff Elrod once saw a painting in his head, and then he couldn’t make it. We used to share a studio, and he did these abstract paintings with tape and flat colors, and sometimes he’d be like, “Oh, I know what the painting’s going to look like, so I don’t need to make it. I know it’s a great painting.” He had it in his head, and it was never going to leave, and he got to live with it. I was always like, “Dude, just do it anyway.” It was like he didn’t want to get bored by his own ideas so he didn’t go through with them. I do that too, but think about how ungenerous that is. All you have is this secret, and nobody else gets to share it.
LF: So you think it's more difficult to describe the smiley-face paintings you're doing now as opposed to your more straightforward portraiture or even the bumper-sticker paintings you used to do?
NL: A lot of the images I use are already out there in the public or in the news. I just steal them or photograph them or repaint them, so they've already been talked about, already been consumed. I'm just reopening them to get at their second, third, or fourth meanings. It really comes down to language. I feel like the biggest failure of humans is miscommunication. We can't communicate with each other-we can fight, we can kill, we can do those things well. Language is the most beautiful and destructive thing because it allows you to express yourself, but it totally confuses everything.
LF: How does that play into the smiley faces?
NL: The smiley faces have their beginning in this letter O.J. Simpson wrote when he first got into trouble for the whole Nicole Brown Simpson debacle. He wrote it to his fans as something of a suicide note and signed it "Peace and love, O.J." And the "O" in O.J. has this smiley face in it, and you just know from looking at it how fucking crazy this person is for signing it that way. A lot of people use a smiley face when they write letters. But it's this huge insane compulsion, like "I'm happy! I swear!" I'm not buying it. I don't believe them. Four years ago I made a work based off the O.J. letter, and now I'm making a whole series of them.
LF: Are you surprised how much different shit you can turn into a smiley face?
NL: Yeah, you only need to make three marks. But it's fucked-up because I see them everywhere. Every coffee stand has a smiley face-every fucking everything. It's kind of making me crazy. [both laugh] It's a good excuse to get to do this project just to get it out of my brain. There are so many different desires that make you execute an artwork. It's nice now that I can go down the road of obsessing over this smiley-face bullshit so maybe I can get free from it and think about something else-it's so banal and yet so crazy!
LF: You've also curated a few shows, including "The Station" show with Shamim M. Momin in Miami during Art Basel last December. Do you like taking a break from being the artist and turning your attention to other artists?
NL: Yeah, it's one of my biggest interests, whether it's collaborating with other artists or curating shows. I'm really interested in the difference between selfishness and generosity. It confuses me to no end because sometimes it all just feels like pure indulgence on my part. People have these weird ideas about artists being romantic, generous people, and sometimes I feel like an asshole, a selfish kid, a brat, the lucky one, because I get to do this and it's how I make my living. But other times I do find it generous. I think of other artists as generous when I get inspired by their work. That's why I like curating. You don't want to take someone else's art and have your way with it. You've got to be respectful of them.
LF: You grew up in Idyllwild, California, a town in the mountains above Palm Springs, and your dad ran a nonprofit art school there. So when you were little you had already seen all of the fund-raising it took to keep the arts alive. Was that a good introduction for your own career?
NL: My dad was getting money for the school, running the whole operation by the seat of his pants, and he didn't make it my problem. By the time I realized how the school functioned and what he did to keep it alive and what he and my mom had to do to put food on the table, I had already moved to New York. But they really supported me doing my own thing. When I was really little I got to spaz out. I would just, like, sit around listening to Sonic Youth and making crazy paintings. It was awesome.
LF: Your parents encouraged that?
NL: Yes. I don't even know if I'm that talented-I can't really draw-but I had a lot of access to these things. I also played basketball, but I'm slow and short. It was cool to have things that I liked to do. Anyway, you need to keep your kids busy.
LF: Did you have television growing up?
NL: Barely, because my town was really small and in the woods. We had terrible reception.
LF: My mom would do this amazing thing that I thought sucked at the time. In the winter we would have cable, and in the summer, the minute it started getting warmer, she would get rid of it, 'cause she hated us sitting around watching television.
NL: She needed some kind of privacy or quiet time to get you out of the house.
HE SMILEY FACES HAVE THEIR BEGINNING IN THIS LETTER O.J. SIMPSON WROTE WHEN HE FIRST GOT INTO TROUBLE. HE SIGNED IT ‘PEACE AND LOVE, O.J.' AND THE ‘O' IN O.J. HAS THIS SMILEY FACE IN IT, AND YOU JUST KNOW FROM LOOKING AT IT HOW FUCKING CRAZY THIS
PERSON IS.—NATE LOWMAN
LF: Yeah. That’s why when I was young and I discovered skating, it was the perfect thing. I would just go skateboarding every day, and my mom wasn’t around to discipline me at all. I could fucking do whatever I wanted until about midnight or something, and then I had to go home. Skateboarding really changed everything in my life—I didn’t give a shit about TV, I didn’t give a shit about movies, I only cared about music because it was part of the skateboarding culture. I met all these different kids from all these different walks of life, and I don’t think if my mom had let us sit around watching TV I would ever have been into skating. Then who knows? I would be, like, working at a bank somewhere. Maybe I would have graduated high school. [laughs]
NL: We did have a skate shop for a little while in my town, and we were psyched about that. I had a launch ramp, but I just kept busting my head open. It was woodsy there, so you couldn’t skate a lot of places.
LF: You just need a gas station or something with a curb.
NL: People weren’t super-into kids lurking around skateboarding.
LF: I don’t think they ever are.
NL: Which is a good thing because it makes you go find your secret spots, and learn that an empty warehouse can be something more than a real estate prospect or a sad, empty warehouse.
LF: Yeah. And I think it’s also great that it teaches you to question authority. Did you ever feel, as a kid growing up in the environment that you did, that in a weird way you almost wanted to rebel and have a normal childhood?
NL: Not really. I feel like I grew up normal, in a small-town normal kind of way. We had to drive down a mountain to Palm Springs if we wanted to go to the mall, and that was interesting for, like, five seconds when I was in sixth grade, but I was never really around the suburbs much. And by the time I spent any time there they freaked me the fuck out, dude. I really was intrigued by cities, like L.A.
LF: I grew up in middle-class suburbia—New Jersey is one big fucking mall. But at least where I grew up there was a little diversity, a little character. It’s not like these towns now in Arizona, where they’ll open a Wal-Mart and build around it until it eventually becomes a town. Tonight is Friday. When I was 14 on a Friday night I’d hang out at the food court in the mall and try to hit on girls and fail miserably and then go skating until, like, one in the morning or something. And that’s Friday night. It doesn’t sound too bad now, looking back.
NL: Doesn’t it sound more fun than a benefit art auction or some bullshit? Or deejaying a benefit auction? [laughs]
LF: When I’m not acting, I’m usually deejaying, so my schedule gets completely flipped upside-down where I’m just on a nightlife schedule, and I don’t wake up until, like, two o’clock in the afternoon, which means I don’t go to bed until, like, four in the morning. It’s a really unhealthy lifestyle.
NL: I like working at night, though. I like painting then. The night schedule is a crazy pit I fall into most of the time, but I do like it because the buzz of normal professionalism has gone away. Even though you’re working, you feel like you’re playing. Of course since I’m never up in the day, I still have this Con Edison bill in my pocket that I can’t mail because I haven’t been able to buy a stamp.