The title of the Nate Lowman's exhibition at the Dallas Contemporary is the punchline to a joke: Why is everyone always saying "God Bless America?" Because America Sneezes.
It's a simple introduction into the brain of an artist whose work as a painter often emerges from observations about American culture. Perhaps most famous for his use of the bright yellow smiley face, long before the proliferation of the emoji, Lowman has also explored elements of car culture, shaping his canvases to resemble the car air freshener tree, or employing bumper stickers and what he describes as "the passive-aggressive quality of that anonymous language." It's how Lowman's mind works, approaching subjects that could be misinterpreted as ironic or kitschy, but Lowman's too thoughtful for that to be true, too respectful. He's interested not just in the banal or the ubiquitous, but in their incorporation into everyday life.
The exhibition at Dallas Contemporary is a new body of work, one that quietly glistens with sincerity. America Sneezes contains a large map of the United States, a sea of found object lamps and a smattering of paintings, including a gorgeous series based on the ceilings in his studio. In fact, in a roundabout way, this exhibition is a peek not just into the brain of Lowman, but into his studio.
Walk into the exhibition and the first thing you see is a set of a bleachers. Too fancy for a Friday night football game, too causal to be commonplace in the galleries of the Dallas Contemporary. From that vantage point, you can sit directly across from the large map of the United States. Pristine in construction and messy in coloring, the map is arranged from a series of shaped canvas that's draped in drop cloths collected from Lowman's studio. Look closely and you'll see footprints on Texas and droplets of paint on Florida. For Lowman it emerges both from an exploration of what a painting can be and his interest in shaped canvases.
"I asked myself what would a crazy eccentric shaped canvas piece be? I thought I could do a map of the United States." says Lowman. "If one state looks a certain way ... like Georgia's red, I've never been to Georgia and have no opinion about it. There's no meaning there. It's completely an abstract."
In full view it's quite a sight to behold, a construction that encapsulates every boundary in our country, the outlines of the states prominently signaling the mishmash collaboration of communities and the abstract way in which America itself was brought together. There are hints of Jasper Johns in the map, and a small step further into the exhibition will bring you to one of Lowman's pine-tree air fresheners painted in the colors of the American flag, appropriating both the map of the country and the symbolic red, white and blue into art. He replaces the blue with a tepid green and names it "Sideshow Bob Marley" And like the uncontrollable sneeze, here the act of creation is a natural reaction to his environment.
Round another corner and you'll see outlines of the shaped air freshener canvases imposed on other canvases, or perhaps leftover from the creation. In each piece Lowman finds beauty in what is leftover. Which, of course, is not the American way. Round one more corner to a room teeming with makeshift, 6-foot-tall lamps composed of found objects. One lamp rests in a shoe, another wears a ripped T-shirt as a lamp shade. It all feels very Isa Genzken. Each is more odd than the other, but collected into the room they are oddly human, increasingly more interesting. Lining the walls in the room are a collection of paintings of the tin ceiling in his studio, painted with brushstrokes of black latex, traced from projected photos, and illuminated by bright spotlights, the final product is stunning. It also closes the circle from the drop cloths underfoot to the ceiling overhead.
"For me the drop cloths were a way to inhabit a conversation about the history of mark making, and they're happening automatically and they're done by chance," Lowman says. "I spend a lot of time literally staring at my ceiling. Recently, it just occurred to me to try to take some photographs and make some paintings of the ceiling, because the paintings all end up on the wall, whether they're inspired by the thing on the ceiling or the floor. It was just a way for me to unify those aspects."
America Sneezes wasn't necessarily about creating one overriding idea for the exhibition, but about connecting disparate ideas through the output of art. Lowman wanted to participate in a conversation about what makes a painting, and by doing so, he also has spent much of his career connecting the dots in a conversation about what is beautiful. Here, Lowman renders what might otherwise be rejected, ejected, and tossed aside into something not just redeemable, but downright lovely.
There's a lot of beauty to be seen at the Dallas Contemporary currently. Between Lowman's thought-heavy exhibition, to the provocative paintings of David Salle, and the breathtaking piece by Anila Quayyum Agha (which won the ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 2014). See all three exhibitions through August 23. Admission is free. More at dallascontemporary.org.