New York

Nate Lowman

Maccarone | 630 Greenwich Street

In his second solo show at Maccarone, Nate Lowman presented an exhibition in two parts, the first of which devolved on the Smiley Face icon. This installation consisted mostly of paintings that clustered tightly on two walls of the gallery’s expansive front room. The artist’s obsessive elaboration of the Smiley Face icon in multifarious guises and contexts derives from its original appearance in his inaugural solo show. Lowman then exhibited a painting of the signature of O. J. Simpson taken from a letter Simpson sent to fans shortly after his arrest—“Peace and Love O. J.” Within the O of his signature, the sports hero and alleged double murderer penned the line and two dots that figure the typical Smiley Face. The handwritten Smiley becomes a flourish within the signature, although the slippage in meaning from sanguine to disingenuous to deranged is precipitous. The bullet-hole painting served as the signature for the artist’s first phase; a chorus of Smiley Faces announces his second.

Many of the paintings incorporate decals and other usually decrepit found objects; protruding from Once You Pop, 2009, for instance, is an empty Pringles tube, its plastic lid featuring a roughly cut out Smiley, an apotropaic rage-murder-suicide Smiley. There’s also a two-part sculpture consisting of a suspended yellow Smiley banner, and, more compelling, a ruinous refrigerator that Lowman rescued from outside Manhattan Central Booking, aka the Tombs, bearing the graffito SAY NO TO DRUGS!! (No need to describe the special styling of the O in no.)

But overall, Lowman seems more interested in comparatively delicate pictorial effects, and a corresponding expansion of emotional suggestions. There is no shortage of lewd and smirking references, but melancholia suffuses the whole show. The best paintings suspire a temper of lo-fi dread, as in The Number 5 in red, yellow, blue, green, and black, 2008. A passel of Smiley Face balloons drifts across the lower half of the picture; the rest is blank. The use of color is aesthetically pleasing, but also gratuitous, as if these wimpy happy sagging bubbles had been made up for a night on the town. They return, as it were, detumescent and disheveled, party-favor failures. The character—personification is irresistible in this case—on the far right looks particularly wasted, the visage a jaundiced green, with stabs of bruised red and blue. These “figures” are already dying; the helium’s wearing off. Spectral Smileys float through another bare canvas, Ghost Town, 2009; the faces and fragments thereof are faded and distended, appropriate emissaries from the Other Side of Junk Culture. Take Your Pic, 2009, is, like many of Lowman’s paintings, a tondo: Within the circle one discerns several overlapping Smileys, indistinct and numinous—except for the central one, rendered in heavy black outline and swallowing a penis. As the legend above reads MALESTED NO! [sic], the act cannot be construed as consensual.

The second part of the exhibition was more various in its range of imagery, and consequently more ambiguous when taken as a whole. Certain works suggested a meditation on landscape, such as the painting Nipton Road, 2009, which shows the tombstonelike marker for the trailhead of Keystone Canyon National Park, a semiderelict sprawl of trash-strewn desert between Joshua Tree and Las Vegas. Paintings of actual tombstones—for people with surnames like “Loser” and “Spanks”—extend the landscape reference. Several ready-made sculptures—upended tow truck booms that have been driven into the concrete floor—are perhaps the most trenchant works in the otherwise more obliquely stated part two of Lowman’s show. Their reorientation from horizontal to vertical, and the concomitant alienation from function and coding as art, once more restates the landscape (of death) iconography. The tow-truck thingies now look inescapably cruciform. This is Lowman’s Road to Calvary. Have a nice day.

David Rimanelli