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Lost and found: In Keren Lowell's solo exhibit 'Groundwork,' meditations on use, neglect and time

Artist Keren Lowell began installing the largest piece in her one-woman show last month with no clear idea about how the final product would appear once she had all the parts in place.

"I didn't know what it would look like," she said. "It was scary."

All the scarier when you consider that "Groundwork" would be the first "big" show she'd ever had.

In fact, four of the works in the seven-piece show had never been assembled before they were put up. They were, in a sense, born right there in the gallery on the fourth floor of the Anchorage Museum.

With limited space at home, Lowell did much of the work outside during the summer, creating her fabric sculptures in a series of individual strips to be connected later.

"String quilting is the term the quilters use," she said.

Though Lowell uses textiles as her primary medium, the resin- and plaster-hardened forms convey none of the fluffy familiarity of traditional quilts, no implication of fun, utility or snugly-ness. Instead, they are stiff and stark, with no function aside from artistic impact. Composed of worn and stressed material, they have a melancholy tone with occasional flashes of ecstasy. Harsh yet alluring.

Sort of like Alaska.

"I'm really not that fond of Alaska," Lowell confided. She grew up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, married an Alaskan and moved here "for a couple of years."

That was 20 years ago.

"We had children. They're in high school now and I'm committed to staying here until they're out of the house," she said. "I complain about it, but I've lived here for longer than anywhere else in my life."

Alaska does offer benefits, she admitted. "For an artist, this is one of those places where, if you're willing to work and show up you can be part of the arts scene, you can get work seen."

In ‘idea-land’

Right now, Lowell's work is being seen at the largest museum in the state, part of the prestigious Patricia B. Wolf Solo Exhibition Series, which showcases local artists in a space that would be reserved for only the most famous and established stars of the art world in the Lower 48.

Lowell said she feels particularly lucky in that "Groundwork" is on display at the same time as "Brick by Brick," a celebration of Legos on the museum's third floor. "All these people are coming in for that; some of them will see my show, too."

The two exhibits are notably different. Even the largest assemblages of little Lego bricks suggest miniaturization. Lowell's pieces are large -- the biggest is 13 by 9 feet -- and appear weighty, though they're actually quite light.

Legos are famous for their bright primary Crayola colors. "Groundwork" is dominated by dark earth tones and implications of natural light.

Every Lego in "Brick by Brick" looks brand-shiny-new. Everything in "Groundwork" is ragged, torn, broken, discarded junk.

Above all, the Lego show is largely representational, with bricklets used to make clever replicas of people, animals, buildings and other things. "Groundwork," on the other hand, is unflinchingly abstract.

"I'm an intellectual artist," Lowell said. "I'm not interested in expressive stuff. I'm in idea-land. The challenge of doing something that speaks on its own is what's really important to me."

The pieces in "Groundwork" speak loudly, but not in a verbal format.

The show's title piece evokes the bark of birch trees. Its primary components are discarded manila envelopes and paper grocery bags. "Pretty much everything in the show is from this stash of stuff I've been collecting, hoarding," Lowell said. "Stuff that's usually just thrown out."

The connotation of a forest is logical, she said. "Paper comes from trees." But the piece is not intended to depict them. The similarity is secondary if not completely coincidental, projected by the viewer.

Found objects are sometimes recognizable, as in "Tailings," the smallest piece in the show and the first one she did. "I was in Nome for a meeting, walking around on the beach, and found this piece of dredge pipe that had been cut off and thrown aside. It had a hole in it. I'd been collecting cloth with holes in it. This is the one that the whole show came from."

Hope and lace

Holes are featured as a motif in all of the pieces. The works are backlit and the light often seems to have burned through the opaque wall of material.

"The holes are the beautiful part," Lowell said. "The only reason I stay in this state is the light. Not just the summer, but the midday light in winter. It's gorgeous."

She said the light adds "maybe a little bit of hope" to constructions that could be "read as being dark, eroding, getting older, dying."

But figuring out how to mount the work with the lights was the most frightening part of the installation, she said.

"I had to use brackets, but I didn't want them to show or interfere with the light. I'm not an engineer, but the staff at the museum was great and we eventually came up with these very smart and efficient brackets."

A couple of the pieces are, in contrast, largely translucent. "Graph" is largely made from old notebook paper and to-do lists. The words are mostly unreadable and unimportant. What is important is the peculiarly graceful design they impart to the piece, unifying the construction with a bright filigree design. Compared to the weighty "Tailings," "Graph" seems to take flight.

Though found objects adorn the sculptures, a number of what seem to be random picks from the trash can turn out to be new and original miniatures.

"I made most of them," Lowell said. "They were like 3-D sketches for sculptures. I turned them out working super-fast."

Keys picked up off the street are used to trim the largest piece in the show, "Breakup."

"Breakup is like the worst time for me," Lowell said. "You get excited, but it's so ugly. Alaska has this underbelly. But when it happens I go through parking lots and find things that are suddenly revealed. For me it's like pirate's treasure."

"Breakup" is, like "Graph," more translucent than opaque, with lace as its primary element. But it departs from the other pieces in the show in several ways. For one thing, the borders between the strips are not straight but zigzag. Lowell compared it to how meltwater works its way through asphalt and glacial creek beds. And, rather than having the edges stitched with twine or cord, like the other pieces, the strips of "Breakup" are connected with screws. Screws also serve to mount the piece on its frame.

"Lace is so pretty," Lowell said. "So Victorian. I was trying to annihilate the feminine quality, to push it away from the pretty part. The opposite is metal, mechanical fabrication.

"It's still pretty," she added with a sigh, "which is kind of irritating. I'm conflicted about it."

Impermanent beauty

Art is intrinsically conflicting for Lowell; maybe that's what makes it art. Her degree from the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley is an interdisciplinary mesh of visual art, literature and music. She originally studied classical flute.

"There's a rigor and intellectual discipline in classical music, something of a metaphor that doesn't exist in literature," she said.

The daughter of a Lutheran minister, she found herself drawn to study art in college. "Modern art, especially, got me lit up. That's when I knew this stuff was speaking to me."

But not in words. A desire to transcend the limits of language continues to weave through her aesthetic thinking. "I didn't even want labels next to the pieces in the show," she said.

Lowell, whose day job is as an office assistant for the Alaska State Council on the Arts, said the "Groundwork" show is a milestone for her.

"For the past 10 years I've only done small pieces, and they weren't very optimistic. After doing this show, I feel more confident, like I've come over a hill."

She'd like to do more shows out of state, she said. That's assuming she can engineer a way to ship the substantive but fragile pieces.

Inevitable fragility is, in a way, what "Groundwork" is all about.

"These worn-out, abraded, unwanted things are beautiful to me," she writes in the exhibit catalog. "They reveal an accumulation of use, of work, of neglect and time. They speak to me about my own vulnerability, my own aging, the slow and eventual breaking down of my physical body.

"I know this work is not permanent," she said. "No art is. Not even marble statues. People say, 'It's so beautiful! You should cast it in bronze.'

"I'm like, 'Sorry.'"

GROUNDWORK, fabric and mixed-media art by Keren Lowell, will be on display through Nov. 9 at the Anchorage Museum.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@alaskadispatch.com or 257-4332.