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The Sheltering Sky

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Tim Lowly: Painting (This World and the Next)

at the Chicago Cultural Center, through February 13

By Fred Camper

We live in an unmistakably secular age, yet Tim Lowly's exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center radiates a naive, almost atavistic faith--most powerfully in three large paintings (the show also includes three smaller paintings, a drawing, and an installation) that present the ordinary physical world as mysteriously extraordinary.

At times Lowly's depictions take familiar forms. Two people climb a rocky path in Light as Air, seeming to ascend into the white, enveloping light of the sky. What saves the picture from cliche is the particular skill with which it's painted: Lowly gives the path and the figures a mixture of intense physicality and airy weightlessness. From a distance the rocks seem a dynamic congelation of paint with the hardness of stone, but at close range that solidity disappears in a blur. Tree branches, rendered as lacy filigree against the white sky, seem at once aggressively outlined and on the point of dissolution. The colors are nearly monochrome--almost all shades of gray and white--and the whitish reflections at the edges of rocks imply that the sky's light is omnipresent. Together the unexceptional figures climbing the path and the nondescript setting suggest that, if this is an intimation of transcendence, then transcendence lies in the ordinary.

Though he doesn't wish to identify his art with any particular theology, Lowly was raised a Christian and remains one today. Born in North Carolina in 1958, he moved with his family as a child to South Korea, where his parents served as medical missionaries. A longtime Chicagoan who recently moved to Galena, Lowly bases his paintings on photographs; Light as Air comes from a snapshot he inadvertently took of his parents on a hiking trip in Korea.

Of course painting from snapshots is one way of keeping his images rooted in the physical world, though the sensuality Lowly imparts to ordinary, even inanimate objects heightens their physical presence. Giving his forms just enough detail to seem precise but just enough softness to be suggestive, he creates a tension between that which is reproducible by photograph and that which is influenced not by optics but by faith. Indeed, the installation here--Untitled (on Quilt), a row of three boxes--is marked by two dimly visible texts at either end: "What you see" and "What you believe" suggest that, while vision and faith may be linked, they're not necessarily identical.

The work with the greatest immediate impact is Temma on Earth, four panels together depicting a single scene. Eight by twelve feet, it shows a girl lying on the ground--Temma, the Lowlys' only child. Now 14, she has been severely disabled, mentally and physically, since birth. Commenting on the work's "monumental" scale, Lowly says, "There's something very intriguing about what happens when you take a person who in the view of much of our culture is a nonperson and depict her in a fashion traditionally reserved for the gods."

Part of the painting's power comes from its almost confrontational physicality. The "earth" that Temma is lying on--dirt, stones, small plants--is painted with even greater precision than the rocks in Light as Air; their palpability and detail reminded me a bit of Albrecht DŸrer, whose prints and drawings also celebrate a physicality that does not exclude the spiritual. Temma on Earth is based on some 30 photographs of the scene, which Lowly collaged using Photoshop. Each was taken looking down on that spot of ground but from a slightly different vantage point--Lowly's attempt to get away from one-point Renaissance perspective, with its implication of art created for a single viewer. "I wanted an image where there is no single point of reference," Lowly says, and indeed each clump of soil and rock has its own uncanny presence. One is confronted not with a rationally organized view but with overwhelming, panoramic detail as well as Temma's unusual figure. Perhaps the overwhelming detail is in part a reflection of the constant care Temma requires from her parents; perhaps it also represents Lowly's attempt to depict her vision of a world she cannot negotiate.

The painting's ambiguous title--"earth" can mean our planet as well as the ground--suggests that Temma might have an existence elsewhere. Since there's no evidence Lowly believes in alien abductions, this implied other habitation most likely refers to her soul. Yet what's most striking about the painting is its underlying animism: the soil and vegetation as well as Temma have a presence beyond their physical existence.

Temma on Earth contains more color than Light as Air, but its pale tans and blues and greens--Lowly simply added pigment to acrylic gesso--both unify the work and suggest one remove from photographic reality. Further distancing the scene from traditional representation are Lowly's foreshortened space and multiple perspectives. Ultimately our sense that this painting lies beyond a single viewer's grasp hints at a pervasive but invisible power behind physical things. I was reminded of the recently deceased filmmaker Robert Bresson, who loved working in black and white--he made color films late, and his first one tended toward monochrome--and whose foreshortened compositions flattened his scenes but suggested a transition to a domain beyond naturalism: more than once his films conclude with stripped-down images that imply there are realms outside photographic depictability.

Lowly's Woman by Water is ultimately the most powerful work here, in part because, among the three large paintings, its subject is the most mundane. In the center of four horizontal panels about 18 feet wide is a gray-haired woman--Lowly's mother, sitting on the bank of the Lincoln Park lagoon, looking perhaps a bit sad. Here Lowly has painted from multiple photographs taken from a single position, yet the effect is similar to that of Temma on Earth: the accretion of detail is overpowering, and the most mundane things have an eerie suggestiveness. As Lowly's apparently precise, ordinary forms seem to dissolve--the woman's black-and-white running shoes, a street sign outside the frame but reflected in the water, even the tan soil and occasional rocks--they evoke a world on the brink of transformation. Because the land slopes upward we can't see very far into the distance; the reflection in the lagoon's calm water doubles what we see, at once restricting the scene and, by adding sky, introducing a space beyond it. A concrete gate with metal bars--apparently some kind of storm sluice--both suggests a passage out of this somewhat claustrophobic space and denies entry. Pregnant with imminent transformation, the entire scene seems poised on a knife-edge between the physical and the spiritual.

Lowly's father died recently, and Lowly says that this group of works is "at least indirectly to do with meditations on life and death." In light of the show's title, the artist arguably sees his mother in Woman by Water as posed in this world while contemplating the next. But even for those who don't believe in the soul or an afterlife, Lowly's vivid pebbles and soil can be meaningful: he reminds us that one need not journey to exotic lands or remote areas to discover a link between seeing and feeling--all the highest possibilities of existence are with us now, at every moment.

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