PRINT January 2004

David Rimanelli on Nate Lowman

GREAT MEN WITH BEARDS: SOCRATES, JESUS, LEONARDO Marx, Freud, Darwin, Dostoyevsky. Crazy men with beards: some of the above, Ivan the Terrible, Charles Manson, Ted Kaczynski, Osama bin Laden, John Walker Lindh. Bearded Dionysian revelers, spiritual visionaries, and/or megalomaniacal kooks: G.I. Gurdjieff, Anton LaVey, Timothy Leary, Jerry Garcia, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Facially hirsute revolutionaries, often Communists: Lenin, Trotsky, Che, Fidel, some of the above. At apexart last summer, Nate Lowman assembled images in various media—photos, found objects, paintings, photocopies—of bearded men covering a wall thirty-odd feet long (More or Less, 2001–2003). His own father appeared, as did Lindh, Kaczynski, the Shoe Bomber, Manson, Jim Morrison, Ice Cube, Kurt Cobain, et al. Almost all of those depicted derive from the extended terrain of popular culture and the daily news. (Only one picture displayed a great beardless one, Robert Smithson, who was vertically bisected by the legend, courtesy Tina Turner/Barbara Kruger, “We don’t need another hero.”) A snapshot showed a friend of Lowman’s wearing a gas mask, “a kind of proxy for the beard,” he says. The clean-shaven artist shies away from any autobiographical/oedipal import suggested by the presence of his own father, but the psychological symbolism of the beard seems obvious: masculinity, power, authority, wisdom, but also dirtiness, sloth, marginality, insanity—a chain of signifiers blandly incorporating numerous authors from the Loeb Classical Library, nameless homeless guys, and scruffy art boys. The beard functions as a fetish in the classically Freudian sense (i.e., penis stand-in). But as Freud remarks in his 1940 essay “Medusa’s Head,” “a multiplication of penis symbols signifies castration.” Ergo, beard equals potency, but in its proliferation of hairs connotes the scary possibility of the opposite.

Attesting that Lowman’s work is “about” the group psychosis of American life à la Natural Born Killers is easy but spoils the fun, whereas psychoanalytic boiler- plate proves strangely liberating. In Untitled (Thug Love), 2003, at Nicole Klagsbrun last fall, the artist juxtaposed Xeroxed images of the messy corpses of Bonnie and Clyde with a familial snapshot of DC snipers Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad. A hand-painted (and misquoted) lyric of Ja Rule’s unifies the couples: “Baby say yeah, would you kill for me?” Another piece—History of the SUV/No Blond Jokes, 2003—doubles Xeroxes of Sharon Tate and Nicole Brown Simpson, while also including a painting of a mug shot of the teenage (and thin) Linda Tripp, arrested for loitering. Lowman pasted some bumper stickers on canvas, with messages like “In Goddess We Trust” and “Denial Works for Me.” His own painted text reads BLOND JOKES VERY NOT IN STYLE. Lowman: “Free association isn’t free. And it isn’t free, either!” Baby say yeah . . .

Warhol, Richard Prince, and Cady Noland perambulate in the genealogical background of Lowman’s practice, although his dispersal of images through various media even within the same piece, as well as their often striking material cruddiness, signals a departure, a deliberate falling apart. It would be wrong, though, to assert that his works are “anti-aesthetic” in a way somehow at odds with his evident precursors. The persistent, well-nigh obsessive collection, collation, manipulation, and arrangement of pictures on a wall implies its own aestheticism, its own low-tech opulence, the luxury of decrepitude and desuetude, the abundance of replete, depleted media figures. A digitally enlarged color Xerox of a National Enquirer photo of Michael Jackson’s chimp Bubbles crops up in More or Less. The latest Jackson scandal, tiresome yet fascinating yet déjà lu, demonstrates this very process of symbolic superflux and vacuity working in tandem. And as Lowman has no fear of trafficking in the obvious, or rather the inevitable, our greatest living work of art (as attested by his recent mug shot) might as well enter the artist’s corpus more fully, perhaps in an excavation of depilation.

Artforum contributing editor David Rimanelli most recently curated “Women Beware Women,” which appeared at Deitch Projects, New York, last November.