Geoff Lowe 1972-92 & A Constructed World Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne
‘Based on a True Story: Geoff Lowe 1972–92 and A Constructed World 1993–2012’ was conceived as the second in the Ian Potter Museum of Art’s Contemporary Art Projects series, in which an established artist is given a sizeable commission to produce new work. Here, Lowe was the ostensible focus, but only up to a point, for the exhibition was an amalgamation of his early work as painter; since 1993 he has collaborated with Jacqueline Riva as A Constructed World (ACW).
What was at stake in this show was the way the artists framed their guiding ideas in the activity surrounding the making of art, rather than in the works themselves. This was why Lowe and Riva, and curator Bala Starr, avoided the formality of a retrospective (although the exhibition had detailed wall labels, they were accompanied by personal anecdotes of the artists and their associates), as well as side-stepping a pared-back ‘greatest hits’ display. The premise was as much about inclusivity and diversity as singular inspiration and, on balance, it appeared weighted more towards the former than the latter.
The exhibition format helped define these guiding ideas by grouping works from different periods together according to one of ten categories. The general confusion of material on display was also compensated for by the inclusion of small, square blue-framed prints bearing the title of each grouping idea – ‘Trans-iterations’, ‘Death above’, ‘Hippie materialism’, for example – in and amongst the works. The detachable cover of the exhibition catalogue also served as a kind of inventory, with the entire exhibition neatly arranged on it in ten rows of thumbnail images.
In the early 1970s, Lowe achieved success with paintings that evoke an austere and sometimes bleak Australiana; these works were distributed throughout the exhibition, alongside some of the first pictures Lowe made at art school. His preference for flat interiors and landscapes was continued in later, more overtly allegorical paintings that assemble symbols of death, Romanticism, rock ‘n’ roll and nationalism. These blended surprisingly well with the typical materials and structures that ACW utilize in their works: broken guitar parts scattered over tarpaulins, hanging paper walls, unstretched canvases and computer monitors mounted on short plinths made from stacks of art history books.
One of the first works Lowe and Riva produced after forming ACW in 1993 was the inaugural issue of Artfan magazine, a small publication that complied articles, manifestos and artist pages with reviews by both art experts and laypersons. From then on they moved into a wide-ranging project that aims to elaborate – or even liberate – the unpredictable, cooperative, plain enthusiastic and amateurish sides of art. Now living in Paris, ACW have produced videos, sculptures, installations, paintings, music, theatre and performance, as well as facilitated workshops, published books and blogs, and begun new collaborative groups.
Something niggles away beneath the optimism that fuels this ambitious project – which flows along on a current of socially engaged, participatory art forms that were partly defined by Nicolas Bourriaud’s theory of Relational Aesthetics. This is not to say ACW’s anarchic sensibility is simplistic or naïve, and nor does this ambiguity derive from the two lead players, who can appear alternately as pop stars, intellectuals or pragmatically minded community-builders. This is something most reminiscent of the young Lowe’s doubting (and self-doubting) regard. In a moving obituary written for the Australian painter John Brack in the last issue of Artfan in 1999, Lowe noted that this ‘hero [...] anticipated post-modernism as something hybrid, unnatural and deathly’. One of the lasting impressions of ‘Based on a True Story’ is that the things Lowe ascribes to Brack are, and probably always have been, part of ACW in its various guises, which while being lauded for its criticality, humour and inclusiveness, has hints of a sometimes grim rootlessness about it too.