Most of us think of memories as things that happened one time, fragments of our personal history that can be jarred at random by a smell or a pop song. But for Thomas Lowe, memory is a constant, an ever-present collection of connections he carries around in a pocket and is reminded of and inspired by. In They think it’s all over, his first solo show in New York, English-born, Lower East Side-based Lowe explores what collective consciousness is created when an artist stops trying to speak universally and concentrates on himself.
Standing among his seven large colored-pencil drawings at Horton Gallery, Lowe doesn’t look like your average Chelsea artist. He is affable and unintentionally charming, speaking with a slightly working-class British accent, and frequently punctuating conversations with "mate" and "you know?" In a gray Champion button-up, purple sweatpants and black high tops, Lowe, 28, who came to New York five years ago, looks more like a Downtown DJ than an up-and-coming artist, but bring up his work and he’ll prove himself in a flash, discussing his inspirations and referencing influences from the Abstract Expressionists to Ernest Hemingway and Michael Jackson.
Lowe’s brilliantly colored drawings weave objects and body parts into frenetic mélanges, exploring narratives through their interrelation and juxtapositions. "Some of them may have two or three stories intertwined, that may be connected," he explains. "I like the idea of six degrees of separation between an event. When we’re living, one event gathers speed as time goes by and it gathers all these things, or objects that weren’t necessarily with the first story. But again, you know how memories move, and they’re organic."
He gesticulates with his hands as he speaks, sweeping them across a drawing or pausing to emphasize a particular feature. When I point out that hands are one of the common objects in his drawings, he is quick to explain. "It’s the one thing that you can’t change. You can change your face, [but] you can always tell a person’s age by their hands.
"I think the hand also allows me to give you a way into the drawing. If you look at a lot of the iPad and iPhone adverts at the moment, it’s all about having these hands: no face, no body, but you’ve got this iPad. It’s the person’s hands, and it’s drawing you into that advert."
Against one wall, a vitrine displays paper clippings and source material from Lowe’s Lower East Side studio. The photographs, shopping lists and immigration papers among them are important elements to spark inspiration for his drawings. "What I do when I’m drawing is I carry these things around me or place them in a certain place in the room," he explains. "And so this is just a selection of things that I carried around in my pocket to try and make me think about a certain drawing."
A photograph of a ride on Coney Island’s Cyclone relates to a nearby drawing, "Thanks. Come Again." Lowe is hesitant to explain the story, allowing me to draw my own connections. But fleshy orifices, a hot dog and a giant lobster claw dominating the composition speak to the excess and regurgitation of beach food.
"The battle with this one was to put something together compositionally with one larger item than the rest. I mean, if you can see the other ones, things tend to be the same size." Indeed, a common thread of tension can be seen in the tightly packed drawings. At first disarming, this tension becomes rewarding as you notice more objects on a second or third glance.
On the opposite wall, "Private School" is the only piece to draw on collage techniques. Again, beautifully executed hands, clothing and a sinewy forearm go right up to the edge of the paper, brimming over like elements of a poignant memory. In the piece, a few objects are pasted on the background drawing, creating subtle layers of juxtaposition. "This one I was drawing in conjunction with thinking about someone else’s stories," Lowe says. "So the idea of implanting one thing on top of the other, with this outside influence."
This idea of combining individually isolated memories into a whole is more universal than we usually think. In light of personal history as amalgamation, Lowe’s drawings become a microcosm of cultural memory.
In his time away from drawing, Lowe works at a Downtown restaurant, not for the money, but for time away from his artwork. "The restaurant job is the only way I can do my work now," he tells me, "As a man, you just need to have that kind of physical escape."
For Lowe, distance from his work is inseparable from production. What he surrounds himself with works its way into his pocket and ultimately creates new memories. A new-found interest in literature and music provide another escape from which he can gain perspective. "It’s quite cool now," he says, "I’m 28 and I’m learning who fucking Joy Division are. I’ve listened to them now for two months, and it’s been great."
>>They think it’s all over
Through May 7, Horton Gallery,
504 W. 22nd St. (betw. 10th & 11th Aves.),