Click on images below for gallery display:
Tuesday, September 18 – Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Francesca Lowe is a young painter born in London 1979. Alasdair Gray, born Riddrie, Glasgow 1934, is one of the most respected novelists of modern times. Answering a Q&A for her debut solo exhibition at Riflemaker in September 2004, Lowe was asked about her favourite book. “Lanark” she replied without hesitation. Gray’s masterpiece, thirty years in the making, four books in one, a book in a million, provided inspiration to a generation of young novelists including Irvine Welsh, A.L. Kennedy, Will Self and Ali Smith.
Working separately, with occasional correspondence by mail and a common title, the two artists have created Terminus, a padded room of one hundred and thirty of Lowe’s ink on linen canvases with Gray’s experimental narrative laid edge to edge across the gallery’s uneven walls.
Terminus depicts the fairground of life- A journey with a beginning, occasional stopping points and possibilities of an ambiguous end. It fuses Victorian preaching-maps and art symbolism, investigating the potential of a secret moral guidance system at work within the structure of a fairground. The exhibition encourages the viewer to indulge visually and mentally in a game of symbolic unraveling, as they grapple with what it means to be human. Lowe describes the possibility within this interior mural, almost a ‘second skin’ on the gallery’s walls.
Alasdair Gray’s 1981 masterpiece Lanark established him as a major literary voice.Lanark is a satirical, subterranean novel, a coming-of-age story set within a ‘world’ with echoes of Dante, Kafka, Blake and Lewis Carroll. Idealistic and fantastical, it is one of the key novels of the 20th century. Lanark takes a moral viewpoint as it does its own unraveling, but Terminus may not. Lowe’s canvases depict a distracting, visually stimulating journey full of thrills and temptation, while Gray makes his contribution via a series of specially written texts on the same philosophical proposition.
“Alasdair Gray is one of the finest writers ever to put pen to paper in the English language” (Irvine Welsh)
“The finest Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott” (Anthony Burgess)
‘A circle in a spiral, a wheel within a wheel’
Francesca Lowe by Sarah Kent
The shelves in Francesca Lowe’s studio are full of books on symbolism packed with arcane information and imagery. Thames & Hudson’s ‘Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols’, for instance, tells us that a stag means ‘renewal, creation, fire, the dawn’ while a horse is ‘a life and a death symbol: solar and lunar’. It’s tempting to imagine that we’ve outgrown such quaint ideas, but you have only to think of the symbolism in everyday language – feeling like an ass or making a pig of yourself, for instance – to realise how deeply embedded it is in our thinking.
The same is true of the imagery. Some seventy years ago in his Vollard Suite of etchings, Picasso used a satyr and the Minotaur of ancient Greek legend to symbolise the power, urgency and blindness of masculine sexuality. We have no difficulty in recognising the beasts that lust after and ravish the voluptuous nudes in his prints as the embodiment of his own ravening impulses and in guessing that he felt enslaved by the very desires that fueled his creativity.
In ‘Lust’, Francesca Lowe adopts a similar bestiary to explore sexuality from a female perspective. Her heroine sits naked in what looks like a fairground ride surrounded by a bull, a goat and a deer. Whether victims or accomplices, the women in Picasso’s prints are usually passive; Lowe’s nude, on the other hand, is in the driving seat, yet she seems paralysed by its forward momentum, as though it is beyond her control. Her features have been replaced by an infernal contraption described by the artist as a dream machine; it is similar to the devices designed by Duchamp to represent the sex drive – the motor of our desires. Her powers of reasoning have been overtaken by the instincts; like Picasso’s Minotaur, the woman is in thrall to her appetites.
Picasso’s mythological beasts are remarkably convincing and Lowe’s goat is similarly lifelike – the animal rolls on its back like a pet, while the woman fondles its genitals; but the deer and bull look like a hunting trophy and wood carving, respectively. The bull looms over the wheel of life, a reminder that this ride is a metaphor for life’s journey.
The fairground theme permeates and structures the whole installation. Featuring a tiger, eagle, ass and scythe-wielding skeleton a series of small canvases are titled ‘Anger’, ‘Wisdom’, ‘Stupidity’ and ‘Death’. Silhouetted against a ladder, each creature is portrayed with the heraldic stiffness of an emblem on a flag or taro card, but they also wear saddles that clearly identify them as carousel rides. Traditional rides are modeled on mythic and fairytale beasts, whose unreality indicates that they are denizens of a liminal realm of experience akin to carnival, where restraints are slackened and license prevails.
A merry-go-round occupies centre stage of ‘Girling Mirth’. Having escaped the constraints of the circular structure, a white horse canters freely across the foreground pursued by a fanfare of colourful motifs like those decorating fairground stalls and sideshows and evoking the clamour and excitement of the fair. A whiff of libidinal frenzy fills the air; resting along the top of the painting, like a resumé or coda, is a frieze of small canvases in which women ranging from classical nudes to bikini-clad pin-ups frolic seductively in oval frames. Like the allegorical figures decorating the ceilings of Venetian palaces, they seem, through their lewd example, to be encouraging the throng below to throw reserve to the wind and indulge their hedonistic inclinations.
Lowe draws frequent comparisons between traditional iconography and the modified versions that infiltrate contemporary culture in the form of adverts, packaging, greetings cards etcetera. An emblematic painting, in which the phrase ‘Hope: humanity’s only comfort’ is framed in a symmetrical border of chocolate-box ribbons, is reminiscent of religious and trade union banners; but the pious sentiment and pastel colours also bring to mind ads for fabric softeners and air fresheners – products marketed as guarantors of health and happiness much as cleanliness and abstinence were peddled by Victorian moralists as definitive paths to righteousness. ‘I wanted the mood to be cheesy like a soap or laundry ad’, says Lowe. ‘I’m mocking our desire for ready-made solutions and happy endings – the need to have everything nice and neat.’
She shows me a page from an 1850 edition of John Bunyan’s ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ which illustrates the spiraling path leading from the City of Destruction to the sanctuary of the Celestial City. ‘As a twenty something artist, I was feeling lost and searching for a route, looking for signs or coded meanings. Then I came across these moral guidance maps’, she explains. Titled ‘Man Know Thyself’, another map takes the form of a tree; it inspired a large painting of the tree of life titled ‘Terminus’, the name given to the whole series. The dictionary definition of the name includes: ‘an end point on a transportation line, a boundary or border; a stone or post marking a border.’ And Lowe describes the paintings as signposts or way markers: ‘indicators of the place that one has arrived at morally and ethically and of possible routes forward.’
The lower branches of the tree are decked with signs warning against corrupting influences such as filthiness, drugs and fleshy indulgence. Suspended among the middle branches are desirable attributes such as courage, bravery, hope and faith that help the aspiring soul strive upwards to the crown where virtues such charity, love and perseverance reign supreme, watched over by the all-seeing eye of God. But the eye could have come from a mascara ad; the rays emanating from the lid resemble false eyelashes as much as signs of visionary intelligence – another example of the similarities noted by Lowe between traditional and contemporary imagery.
Popular culture, she says, is ‘a collective code that changes through time by means of quotation and plagiarism – like a snowball rolling downhill and picking up stuff. ’ Dipping into this vat of collective images and ideas, she creates allegories of life as a journey in which patterns and cycles are endlessly repeated. In these paintings the wheel – of life or fortune – is a recurring motif; it introduces the notion of time as circular, of events being repeated and ideas revisited on an individual and a collective level.
The concept is reinforced by the transparency of the paint surfaces; they are like palimpsests, built up layer on layer through the constant addition, revision and erasure of material. ‘To alleviate the stress of making paintings’, Lowe explains, ‘I imagine that I’m simply rubbing off the white surface of the canvas to reveal the image underneath. Its as if everything is already there – has already happened – and I’m looking for signs to indicate the right way, so that I don’t waste time by losing the path, either in painting or in life.’
click on link below to watch Alasdair Gray and Francesca Lowe ‘Terminus’ Feature:
Alasdair Gray and Francesca Lowe ‘Terminus’ Feature