Chicago artist Tim Lowly communicates compassion and acceptance in his depictions of vulnerable humans.
by Joseph C. Skrapits
|Portrait of K
2006, charcoal on toned
museum board, 19 x 141/2.
All artwork this article
collection the artist
unless otherwise indicated.
In Portrait of K, a recent charcoal drawing by Tim Lowly, a young woman clutches her coat in a gesture of instinctive self-protection. The subject, a student at the college where Lowly teaches, was unknown to him before he asked her to sit for the portrait. After making one small preliminary sketch, an integral first step for drawing people, Lowly began the drawing on a large piece of gessoed museum board, which he initially ruled off for the portrait; later he decided to enlarge the composition to cover the entire sheet.
The model’s pose had been finalized and the portrait was well under way before Lowly learned the details of K’s harrowing life history. Although the facts remain confidential, the drawing’s compositional elements suggest an atmosphere of psychological disturbance: K wears a wounded, wary expression on her face. She is pretty, but her disheveled hair and her shapeless coat seem deliberately intended to disguise her attractiveness. In the background, bits of classroom paraphernalia (an eraser at the base of a chalkboard, the edge of a book or canvas) become players in an uneasy balancing act of angular forms that contrast with the soft, curving shapes of the figure.
Lowly calls himself an expressionist rather than a realist, and Portrait of K belongs to a robust graphic tradition that harks back to such 20th-century German artists as Käthe Kollwitz, Emil Nolde, and Otto Dix, back through Van Gogh’s early Dutch drawings, and ultimately to Rembrandt and Dürer. “Art evokes presence,” Lowly says, adding that he works to achieve not perfect forms but convincing resemblances of psychological and spiritual experiences. “The question for me now is how to make work that is ‘open,’” says Lowly, “not sealed by an idealized notion of completion but rather an emulation of life in the way it keeps evolving.”
|Mrs. F.b. Grubbs
81/2 x 51/2. Private collection.
Lowly says that although he used to do at least one preparatory drawing for his paintings, he now usually paints directly from photographic sources. Yet he remains a passionately dedicated draftsman and prefers to work from the live model when he draws. “In terms of sheer pleasure, it’s hard to beat drawing from life, “ he says. Lowly’s technical approach varies considerably from drawing to drawing: Portrait of K exhibits an organization of forms based on broad masses and a painterly handling of edges that directs attention toward the model’s face. By contrast, Mrs. F. b. Grubbs, a graphite drawing from 1989, is an essay on wrinkles and folds in skin and clothing, with an emphasis on linear marks that map the subject’s impending disintegration.
Portrait of K reaches into the area of creative elaboration that we usually associate with painting with a capital P. Not only is the face fully and delicately modeled, with touches of white chalk used to develop the lights, but the varying textures of hair, skin, cloth, and slate are individually explored. That the work lacks realistic color is obvious, but we don’t miss it because the drawing has “color” in the sense that sculptors use the term: a quality of tactile animation that connotes vitality.
In Lowly’s drawings we meet an artist who approaches the medium as an end in itself—that is, as a fully independent vehicle of creative expression, on the same level as painting and certainly worthy of exhibition alongside painted works. But Lowly goes further: He often appropriates the intimate scale and monochrome palette of drawing to make paintings that stubbornly refuse to meet conventional expectations of what painting should be. Consider the 1999 work Setting the Table. Seen in reproduction, the 10"-x-7" panel could easily be mistaken for a graphite or charcoal drawing. In fact, the artist painted it with a brush, using acrylic gesso, to which he added powdered pigment.
|Setting the Table
1999, acrylic gesso with
pigment on panel, 10 x 7.
There is a disturbing element in Lowly’s art that is not difficult to discern. Less remarked upon but no less important, the ambiguity between drawing and painting in his work sets up a formal tension that amplifies the unsettling nature of his subject matter.
The son of American medical missionaries, Lowly grew up in South Korea during the 1960s. When he returned to the United States in the mid-1970s to attend college, his interest in art led him to Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, which had a strong studio-art program. Lowly graduated in 1981 with a B.F.A. that emphasized painting, drawing, and printmaking equally. That same year he married his wife, Sherrie—who is now a Methodist minister. In 1983 they traveled to South Korea, where Lowly took a college-level job teaching English. The part-time employment allowed him to create art, meet Korean artists, and gain a deeper understanding of the culture of the country where he spent his childhood.
In 1984, near the end of his stay, Lowly met an artist who made a deep, lasting impression on him. Lim Ock Sang was a leading figure in the minjung movement, which portrayed the social and spiritual conditions of life for ordinary South Koreans in ways that were unflattering to the ruling dictator, who was trying to sell Western investors on an image of his people as happy, industrious workers. Realistic, somewhat primitive, and totally accessible, Lim’s politically-charged art proved a refreshing tonic for the young American, who was dissatisfied with the hermetic, theory-laden late-Modernist movements he’d been exposed to in college.
“I’d been looking for a visual-art equivalent to the social gospel and liberation theology I believed in as a Christian,” Lowly remembers. “Lim’s paintings might be compared with the work of Sue Coe and Leon Golub, whom I discovered a little later when I returned to the United States. Lim’s example gave me permission to pursue a similar kind of justice-driven confrontational art.”
Returning home by way of Europe, the Lowlys made an extensive tour of European museums that added another dimension to the artist’s maturing aesthetic. Early Renaissance Netherlandish and Italian painting, particularly the works of Fra Angelico, fascinated him. The pale, luminous colors and matte surfaces of fresco and tempera paintings had a direct, emotional appeal that transcended subject matter. Back in the United States, Lowly set out to teach himself tempera technique; he discovered that the systematic discipline required—the laborious preparation of the panel, the production of a detailed monochrome underpainting, the slow build up of color layers with tiny brushes—suited his contemplative nature.
|Temma on Earth
1999, acrylic on panel, 96 x 144.
Collection Frye Art
Museum, Seattle, Washington.
“I liked the look of the Old Masters, but I wasn’t trying to imitate them,” Lowly says. “I was just trying to paint as well as I could.” His attempt to express a socially conscious contemporary vision using the formal language of 15th-century artist-monks may seem eccentric, but it was not without precedent in the history of modern art. Back in 1918, the Mexican artist Diego Rivera toured Italian churches on his way home from Paris. Rivera’s discovery of Giotto’s frescoes inspired him to lead a revival of fresco painting with politically revolutionary subject matter, laying the foundation for the Mexican mural movement, one of the most important North American art developments of the 20th century.
In 1985, while Lowly’s wife was pregnant with their first child, the artist began a large, ambitious tempera panel. It borrowed a number of devices from early-Renaissance art: a “Madonna and child” in the foreground; deep, single-point perspective reinforced by a checkerboard-pattern floor and receding arches; and a luminous landscape in the far distance. Lowly based the painting on a dream a friend had related to him; he called it Catastrophe in Heaven [not shown]. “I didn’t know what the catastrophe was,” he says, “until Temma was born.”
A day after her birth, the Lowlys’ daughter suffered a cardiac arrest and a temporary interruption of oxygen to her brain, resulting in severe, multiple, and permanent disabilities. “It was devastating, of course,” says Lowly. “But the possibility of not keeping her with us never occurred to us.” Today Temma, now 20, still lives with her parents. Unable to see and having very limited speech and mobility, she requires constant care. Lowly calls his daughter “the single biggest influence” on his art; the shocking nature of her disabilities caused a profound shift in the direction of his work.
The change didn’t occur abruptly, however. Communicant [not shown], a 1987 tempera panel now in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, reveals a painter still committed to an art of social and political criticism. The painting’s grisly imagery, brought into uncomfortably sharp focus by Lowly’s meticulous attention to detail, is very much in the spirit, if not the style, of Goya’s Disasters of War: It is a cry of outrage against senseless butchery committed in the name of ideological purity.
But by the early 1990s this topical element had largely disappeared from Lowly’s art, although it might be more accurate to say that it was subsumed within a content and formal approach that became more personal and mature. The artist had not personally witnessed the savagery he depicted in Communicant; its horror has something of the unreal quality of a Technicolor nightmare. But in the 1991 ink-and-charcoal drawing Imago Dei, now in the collection of the Arkansas Arts Center, in Little Rock, the artist takes us into his own world and confronts us with an aspect of life that is deeply unsettling precisely because it is the result of intimate, daily experience.
1991, ink and charcoal, 22 x 15.
Collection Arkansas Arts
Center, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Imago Dei, Latin for “in the image of God,” shows Lowly’s daughter Temma, then about 6, lying on a sofa beneath a window, which, whether because of frost or dust on the glass, scatters the light and creates a glowing nimbus above her head. The little girl appears to be asleep, but she rests awkwardly, her head tilted up to one side, her mouth open, her arms hanging limp with the fingers of the right hand curling unnaturally from the sleeve of her shirt. The light animates convoluted folds of clothing and pillow, which contrast with, and emphasize, the girl’s stillness; and the vertical composition is bisected severely by an almost unbroken horizontal line. Above, all is calm.
Lowly calls the drawing “a political statement,” though it is aimed not at party dogmas but at cultural stereotypes. Following the ancient Greeks, the tradition of Western religious iconography has often depicted the Deity in terms of human physical perfection—the Apollo figure—the better to convey “his” all-powerful, all-knowing transcendence of human limitations. Imago Dei belongs to the alternative tradition of Ecce Homo (“behold the man”), which depicts Christ as the scourged and suffering King of the Jews—or, in this case, a little girl.
Works such as Imago Dei convinced Lowly that color wasn’t necessary to convey a powerful emotional statement. Although he continued to make multilayered tempera paintings with jewellike coloration, his search for a more direct means of expression led him to experiment with allowing works to remain at the monochrome underpainting stage. Further experimentation led Lowly to sand or otherwise abrade portions of his panels, scuffing his ink- or acrylic-painted surfaces to produce effects similar to that of erasure in drawing. The small panels Lifted I and Lifted II [not shown], from 2002, show the unexpected delicacy that such rough handling can produce.
2002, ink on panel,
15 x 91/2.
“I’m fundamentally interested in experimentation and discovery,” Lowly explains. “Making art is like dancing, and good dancers are always responsive to their partners. Too often artists and teachers impose a set of ‘manners,’ preconceived notions of what constitutes proper practice and form. But the results may not breathe.”
Imago Dei introduced another practice that has evolved into one of Lowly’s characteristic strategies: painting from photographs—more like family photo-album pictures than Ansel Adams-type images. Lowly’s reference photos are by no means masterpieces of photographic technique and composition. Often skewed, badly cropped and blurred, they offer information but not aesthetic satisfaction. And the artist makes no attempt to correct their defects; in fact, he often reproduces such things as out-of-focus effects and double images, a task that he says is actually more difficult and time-consuming than trying to copy a “good” photograph.
In Tend, a 2001 acrylic work on panel, a blond-haired woman leans over and touches the face of Temma, whose eyes are open. The woman’s profile and the girl’s face are both blurred as a result of the camera having been shaken at the moment the shutter opened. Why bother to preserve a mistake? The question, once stated, reverberates brutally far beyond the discussion of artistic technique and intention. It opens out onto one of the fundamental, ethical dilemmas of our time.
2001, acrylic on panel, 24 x 32.
Curiously, the effect of such visual ambiguity and irresolution is different in Lowly’s piece than it would be in a photograph. The artist has transformed a technical fault into something mysterious. An everyday gesture, the touching of a hand to a face, takes on an immense finality worthy of a sacred benediction. This monumental quality, together with the beautiful range of delicate grays and velvety blacks in Tend, brings to mind the magical Conté drawings produced by the French Neo-Impressionist Georges Seurat in the 1880s. Seurat led an attempt by a group of young artists to introduce a more rigorous intellectual method and a symbolic, spiritual content to the purely optical art of the Impressionists. Similarly, Lowly is one of a cohort of artists today trying to inject deeper spiritual and conceptual significance into the optical illusions of photo-based realism.
It is commonplace in art history that the most profound expressions of universal truth often depend on insights and discoveries that are extremely local and humble in origin: Rembrandt’s biblical prophets were characters he encountered in his walks through Amsterdam; Vermeer’s girl with a pearl earring was, plausibly—we’ll never know for sure—a servant in the artist’s household.
Lowly set out to create an art that spoke of injustice in the abstract. He was led, by circumstances beyond his control, to lower his gaze and focus his attention within the circle of his immediate family: his aging parents (who also figure prominently in his work), his wife, and his daughter. The artist says that Temma has taught him “the value of being, apart from the capability of doing something.” In a culture that links identity closely to role (“what do you do?”) and encourages us to think of others as instruments for our personal needs and wants (“what can you do for me?”), Temma’s daily lesson to her parents, and to us, is a lesson about love.
The companion piece to Tend, its pendant, is a work titled See. Lowly based it on one of his “good” photographs. The profiles of Sherrie and Temma are etched clearly, as if in bas-relief. Mother and daughter seem to be intently watching something beyond the frame of the picture. Lowly says that Sherrie was watching TV; Temma was watching—nothing?
Initially the painting seems to be about the activity the subjects are engaged in, or seem to be engaged in. But the longer one looks, the more deeply the painting’s title resonates as a command to the viewer: see.
About the Artist
Tim Lowly is gallery director, assistant professor, and artist-in-residence at North Park University, in Chicago. His drawings and paintings are in the permanent collections of the Arkansas Arts Center, in Little Rock; the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, in Kalamazoo, Michigan; the Kresge Art Museum at Michigan State University, in East Lansing; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City; and the Rockford Art Museum, in Rockford, Illinois. The artist is represented by gescheidle gallery, in Chicago, and Koplin del Rio, in West Hollywood, California. To view more of Lowly’s art, visit his website at www.timlowly.com.