Empire Style (installation detail), 2003
acrylic and enamel paints on canvas, enamel paint on papier-mâché, clocks, mirror
installation dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist and Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Santa Monica, CA
Photo: Douglas M. Parker Studio
“First freedom, and then glory; when that fails, wealth, vice, corruption.”
(Cole's motto to his popular description of the series, The Course of Empire ) 1
Thomas Cole, the father of the Hudson River School of American landscape painting, lived in a time when the wilderness was still a reality and nature was a force to be reckoned with. Inspired by Edward Gibbon's late 18th-century prose epic, A History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire , Cole represented the cyclical history of empire from its origins in the savage state in the primeval forest to its climax in the splendor of civilization, in five paintings entitled The Course of Empire. The splendid metropolis represented by Cole in his third painting in the series implies Gibbon's thesis that empires bring about their own downfall through luxury brought about by prosperity and corruption. In the fourth painting, Cole showed the invading barbarians aided and abetted by an avenging nature wreaking destruction with gale-force winds. The series concludes with nature victorious over a prideful humanity whose accomplishments are now reduced to ruins.
For California installation artist Jean Lowe, on the other hand, the wilderness exists only as a concept and in the national forest reserves and parks. Humanity with its technological know-how has indentured nature to satisfy its ever-increasing need for raw materials, hydraulic power, and recreational spaces. In her epic-scale canvases in her museum-style installation, Lowe updates Cole and the turn-of-the-19th-century painters of the untamed North American West by representing a landscape desecrated by modern-day land developers in their all-consuming urge to profit. For the uncharted wilderness, her vistas substitute a land clear-cut and graded for building track houses and laying asphalt for roads . The ironic names given to the developments that lay waste— Rancho Cielo (Sky Ranch) and Sienna Estates —constitute a characteristic display of imperial nostalgia for the colonized “culture” (nature), according to anthropologist Renato Rosaldo. 2 An absence of human and animal life in the bleakness underscores the inhumanity of the modular construction. Low benches in the gallery encourage us to contemplate that which we have wrought. In Lowe's bird's-eye views, only the open skies are untouched by colonizers, although as mankind's last frontier, they too are doomed.
In the adjoining Empire Style gallery Lowe plots an evolving history of empire from the military conquests of Rome all the way to the present-day economic empire of the United States. Her papier-mâché Empire style fauteuils, or upholstered armchairs, console tables, and commodes quote the style associated with Napoleon. Percier and Fontaine's furniture designs published in their influential 1801 Recueil de décorations intérieures inspired an official art that reflected Napoleon's nostalgia for the proud splendor of ancient Rome. Quoting a popular design preserved in at least three ornamental clocks in European royal collections, the faux gilded bronze Oath of the Horatii clock invokes the patriotism of the Roman Republic. 3 Based ultimately on Jacques-Louis David's 1784 painting of the same name in the Louvre, the three Horatii brothers swearing to fight the enemy to the death express the military virtues espoused by Napoleon. The Empire style ormolu armchairs with exotic griffins, meanwhile, recall the “barbaric” Orient that had been tamed by the “civilizing” force of the French. Arranged salon-style so as to encourage the refined manners and conversation of civilized society, the rich furnishings bespeak a rarified world in which the educated elite enjoyed the beautiful objects ornamented to recall an exotic East their imperial ambitions had extinguished forever.
Significantly, Lowe contrasts the antique furnishings with wall-size paintings of modern strip malls complete with discount retailers, fast-food franchises, and parking lots. Functioning in lieu of the ornamental wallpaper of a period room, the panoramic strip malls jolt the viewer into the immediate present. History repeats itself: In the massive block-like appearance of the furniture is the realization of Percier and Fontaine's maxim, “simple lines, pure contours, correct shapes replace the miscelinear, the curving, and the irregular.” 4 The block-like modern architecture of the retailers updates the Empire Style to reveal the shared visual vocabulary of all empires. Imposed on a rocky mountain landscape, the modular sterility of the retailers is irrespective of the natural setting. An ancient temple complex backdropping an arcaded Starbuck's coffee shop highlights the continuity of the imperial dream. Green awnings in the modern strip mall substitute for the greenery of nature; the spindly trees on either side of Target must be propped for support.
The large discount stores and franchises in Lowe's paintings imply a world conceived in terms of buying and selling. This consumer-oriented world, whose beginnings in the gilded age Susan Sontag recreates in her novel In America, is one defined by freedom, as one of Sontag's entrepreneurial characters puts it, the freedom to make as much money as one can. 5 In free-market capitalism nothing is sacred, not the wilderness whose boundaries are encroached upon to construct more track houses connected to strip malls, nor the animals that we breed for food and as pets, to fulfill our needs as consumers. In her decorative-arts room, Lowe directs us to consider the hidden cost of our consumption in 47 faux ceramic plates. Centering each of the plates is an eye, the ghostly conscience of an animal destroyed to satisfy our lust. In her ornamental urns, whose gargantuan proportions suggest the insatiability of consumers, nature in small panel paintings is required to endorse the very products that are destroying it. The capacity of humans to rationalize, to displace blame through sentimental gestures, is expressed in the small vases bearing romanticized images of pets. Distinguished from the rest of the animal world for their capacity to serve as companions, these memorials to beloved pets reassure our innate goodness in our national love affair with animals.
According to Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Cole in his paintings based on Gibbon, the Roman Empire fell when the enjoyment of private affluence seduced the citizens from an active participation in public life, when the citizens became acquiescent subjects or willing tools of despotic leaders. 6 In her library of self-help books, Lowe suggests how corporate greed has subverted democracy, and how the big corporations have been allowed to assume a commanding role in politics and direct the nation to determine the American way of life. With ludicrous titles: Happiness is a Kitten, Fresh Ways with Lamb, How to Tell if Your Hunches are Sound , she implies the dumbing down of American culture familiar to us from the talk shows in which individuals with bizarre problems are presented to encourage us to conclude we are “fine” and “normal.” This dulling or drugging of the human psyche is most potently expressed in the cover illustration of Life in a Peaceful New World. A cascade of anti-depressants, mood elevators, and tranquilizers tells how a medicated America is able to overlook the real consequences of its profligate behavior to continue to plunder the planet and deprive future generations.
An offspring of the Pattern and Decoration movement, Jean Lowe seduces the viewer with her artful arrangements of handcrafted objects to communicate her social concerns. Characteristic of the papier-mâché medium, her bent irregular surfaces call attention to the handmade. Her loose painterly style stresses process, the individual choice that directs production. In her artful displays she suggests that beauty in this brave new world survives in the impermanent and handmade. Its seeming rarity is the result of an inversion of basic human values whereby the hand made is in museums to be preserved from extinction, and we live deprived amid a surplus of mass-produced commodities. Hand-fashioned from cheap newsprint, glue, and paint, her color-rich objets d'art tell us that beauty is within the reach of all consumers. The individual creativity that is grossly undervalued by our modern world of scientific technology is as necessary to living as is nature and the natural world. The irregular and the misshapen, the unexpected and serendipitous, Lowe seems to say, nourish the spirit and remind us of what it means to be truly alive in this world.
Professor of Art History
The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
1. The Life and Works of Thomas Cole by Louis Legrand Noble, ed. Elliot S. Vesell (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), p. 168.
2. Renato Rosaldo, Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), p. 69.
3. The Oath of the Horatii clock is found in London, Buckingham Palace, the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, and the Royal Collection in Stockholm.
4. Charles Percier and Pierre François Léonard Fontaine, Recueil de décorations intérieures (Paris, 1801); quoted in Louise Ade Boger, Furniture Past & Present (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1966), p. 202.
5. Susan Sontag, In America (New York: Picador, 2000), p. 101.
6. Eugene Y. C. Ho, “Edward Gibbon, Historian of the Roman Empire,” http://www.alumni.caltech.edu/~zimm/gibho2.html.This exhibition was curated by Dana Self.