Artist Nate Lowman reveals the inspiration behind his works in progress

Published December 19, 2017

This December, the Aspen Museum of Art is opening a mid-career retrospective of works by the New York artist, which conjure the dreams and nightmares lying just under the surface of America’s everyday totems and talismans. Ever the cultural scavenger, he reveals recent inspirations for a few pieces in progress.

CHAIR OUTSIDE THE SEA SLUG LOUNGE IN AMAGANSETT, NEW YORK. PHOTO: RACHEL CHANDLER. CHAIRS IN BANGKOK. PHOTO: RACHEL CHANDLER.

NATE LOWMAN: Last winter, my girlfriend Rachel and I arrived in Bangkok with no real expectations. Delicious food, utter chaos, and severe heat yield an exciting and, at times, brutal atmosphere. There is also an overwhelming tourist dynamic to deal with (even as a tourist). The unlikely protagonists of our trip ended up being the ubiquitous empty plastic chairs. I grew up stacking and unstacking these types of chairs when my parents entertained. In Bangkok, they are everywhere. They weigh nothing and they come in every color. Their plasticity reflects the sunlight even when they are covered in soot. And being empty, they hold the ghosts we seek when we travel.

SHELL PATCH FROM TOKYO

LOWMAN: This little Shell patch is about the size of a quarter. I picked it up on a trip to Tokyo. Is it possible for a tiny, slightly crude rendering of a corporate logo to hold and transmit the anger of thousands of protests from Seattle to Nigeria? Is that the ’90s me asking that question? Do the irregular contours stitched with bright primary colors mean that “cute” is the new “punk”? None of the above? I really don’t know, so I just stare at it all the time, wondering.

SCULPTURE FROM BANGKOK, CIRCA 1900, IN LOWMAN’S STUDIO, NEW YORK CITY.

LOWMAN: When I was in Bangkok, I looked all over for these wooden deer sculptures (a Buddhist thing that I wanted to appropriate into a scarecrow to ward off real deer at my place in Amagansett). It turns out that the deer sculptures are quite rare, and these wood dick sculptures are abundant. I ended up with no deer and seven dicks—so, as my Italian friends would say, “Cazzo!” I’m trying to make a sculpture.

ERIK IN CALIFORNIA, 1995, ON A PAGE FROM LOWMAN’S PHOTO ALBUM.

THREE POSTCARDS FROM REIMS CATHEDRAL IN REIMS, FRANCE. AND THE ANGELS ARE SINGING BUT THEIR SKIRTS ARE ON FIRE FOR E.S. 2, 2017; LATEX, OIL, AND ALKYD ON CANVAS; 49 . 60 . 1.25″; COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND MACCARONE, NEW YORK AND LOS ANGELES.

LOWMAN: I had an exhibition in the spring of 2016 in Reims, France, the region where champagne comes from. It’s also home to a very impressive cathedral, pictured here on fire. Along with stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall, the façade includes a smiling angel that attracts tourists—the younger ones carry selfie sticks, the rest of us buy postcards.
Many months after returning home with my postcards, I turned to them as source images. I had wanted for many years to make a painting memorializing my friend Erik, who took his own life more than a decade ago. Erik and I were childhood friends in Las Vegas and had moved to California at the same time. We grew up together playing music and exchanging poetry. Erik is pictured here circa 1995. Erik wrote a poem that included the line: “And the angels are singing, but their skirts are on fire.” I don’t remember the poem’s title, and I don’t have a copy of it. I was screwing around in the studio, painting images from the cathedral postcards, when I remembered the line from Erik’s poem. Trying to paint from a photograph of a sculpture in order to render an image described in a poem was so silly and addictive that I ended up doing a series of six.

NATE LOWMAN: BEFORE AND AFTER RUNS UNTIL JUNE 10, 2018 AT THE ASPEN MUSEUM OF ART.