New York

Jean Lowe and Kim MacConnel

Holly Solomon Gallery

Kim MacConnel and Jean Lowe’s recent installation Bull Story (all works 1995) took me back to last summer when, driving through an isolated pasture down South, I came upon a family of cows. All but the big black bull moved out of my path. The bull’s eyes were rimmed with red, as if it had a hangover, its nose covered with buzzing flies. I sat in the car and watched the flies while the bull tried to stare me down. We sat like this until one of the cows swooshed its tail a certain way and the bull reluctantly moved off with her, casting a distrustful look in my direction. Clearly, they wanted to be left alone.

MacConnel and Lowe’s show delivered much the same message, with an eco-conscious, highly decorative twist. A mythographic installation that amounted to a call for kindness to cattle and non-Western cultural traditions, it featured MacConnel’s strangely stirring neo-Impressionist paintings of cows in arcadian settings; a witty collection of faux reference books (also in papier-mâché) with titles such as Foucault on Bull and Flossy Bossy and Me; a number of delightfully kitschy papier-mâché commemorative plates, each with a different breed of cow at the center; and a papier-mâché bull of mammoth proportions with a fey garland of flowers painted around its neck. This Big Daddy of sacred cows—Nandi, mount of the Hindu god Shiva—was enclosed by walls covered in newspaper painted with the red vertical stripes common to South Indian temples. Though it had more humility than the bull I’d seen down on the farm, given its size, there was no question of staying out of its way.

MacConnel and Lowe, vegetarians with firm roots in the pattern-and-decoration school, seemed deeply engaged in a form of culture-bashing that politicized the conventions of the landscape tradition. Rather than presenting a glorious vision of nature, Lowe’s mural-sized, faux-rococo canvases zeroed in on our exploitation of natural resources (in this case, the use of animals for food). Both artists’ reverentially handmade plates could be pointed and amusing, but Lowe’s crusading Food for a Nation seemed to have overchewed its cud. In this work—a canvas laid flat to the wall like a tapestry—she painted a bird’s-eye view of hundreds of grazing cattle corralled for imminent slaughter, forcing the viewer into the position of predator.

MacConnel’s beautiful, almost folksy paintings were less strident in tone. Indeed, his Cows at Creek was positively endearing. Like Family and Lost Cows, it was painted on cardboard in a semiprimitive style and in a less naturalistic palette than the one Lowe employed in her drab renditions of idealized Americana. With surfaces that seemed to have been brushed by the winds (of change?), these paintings were something of a departure from MacConnel’s customarily bright, wildly patterned abstractions. Set in primary-colored papier-mâché frames whose hatch marks suggest Indian decorative techniques, he underscored the Western rape of Third World cultures by presenting “our” culture in the “Other’s” frame.

Though this installation could, at times, seem precious, neither MacConnel nor Lowe treated art itself as precious, milking the sacred cows of Western culture, both historical and contemporary, for all they’re worth.

Linda Yablonsky