'The Curiosities of Janice Lowry' Is a Heartbreaking Exhibition of Staggering Beauty

Two hours before the retrospective of late artist Janice Lowry's illustrated journals, paintings and mixed-media assemblages go on formal view at the Grand Central Art Center, exhibition curator Andrea Harris-McGee runs around setting small, descriptive tags next to each display. The piles of tags, each dutifully taped on the back for easy mounting, start to shrink, and an assistant tells her to slow down or she'll finish too early.

“Then what are you going to do?” he asks. “Just stand around and freak out?”

Harris-McGee laughs and slows down, stopping to offer tidbits about Lowry, their dear friendship and her infectious enthusiasm for the artist's work. The two had planned an exhibition of Lowry's life work for several years, but it didn't happen until now—a year and a half after Lowry's death.

Her meticulous assemblages—which, along with the collages, make up the bulk of the work on display in “The Curiosities of Janice Lowry” exhibit—are diorama/shadow boxes filled with layers of found items. While it's ridiculous to say that an artist who dies early reflects that death in her work as if it's some kind of twisted goal, we're also a species that looks for patterns. Looking at the bits of broken ephemera—springs of exploded watches, circles that encompass, eggs suspended in string, items chained, dismembered dolls without limbs or with perforated bodies—inside Lowry's assemblages, there's a prescient feeling of struggle against disappearing, one that easily overwhelms the more upbeat imagery of nature Lowry also produced.

It's especially evident in two different, extremely poignant pieces: 1984's The Wedding and one of her last pieces, 2009's Learning to Fly. Wedding is an unblinking view of the joys of wedded bliss—as well as its potential traps—filled with fish hooks, pale dead flowers and stick pins amid sections of the artist's wedding dress, under glass like a see-through coffin. A figure is painted on the front in black, a piece of jewelry in the shape of a heart covering the figure's crotch. Compare such wide-eyed joy with Learning. Completed shortly after her cancer diagnosis, it perfectly records the all-encompassing experience of grief as a woman pulls an Icarus and hurtles through the air toward the sea. As she falls, in a chilling moment of bravery, the woman begins to remove the bird's-head mask that covers her face, as if to get a better vision of the coming doom.

More overt statements are in the collage series Travel and Fortune and Birds and Beauty. Travel features elegant, Mad Men-styled women surrounded by corporate symbols and consumer products—cars, radios, the trappings of home, with gals dressed to catch a husband, oblivious to the images crowding in on them. Almost hidden in the corner or top of the pictures is a small, often ironic message from a Chinese fortune cookie. Birds looks to be old Audubon images of birds, with women posed in bikinis or serapes pasted over them, the occasional wing or beak poking out of a shoulder or bouffant hairstyle, yet another form of nature for men to “hunt.”

Harris-McGee shares an anecdote with me. One of the last times she met with Lowry—who was already gravely ill at the time with cancer—the artist proclaimed her current stretch of production one of the best in an already-distinguished career. Knowing death approached, it made Lowry happy that such startling work would serve as a fitting legacy, but she was disappointed she couldn't keep going during such a fruitful run. Upon hearing the story, I felt an immediate sadness and paused to look at all of the art in the room around me.

Then, almost as quickly, I felt grateful that Harris-McGee kept her word to her friend. Yes, death haunts the work on display—how could it not?—but this isn't a momento mori. It's a series of observations by a talented artist on how a woman makes her place in the world, while attempting to retain some semblance of dignity in her both her body and her art. Lowry's voice—sometimes ambivalent, other times obsessively repetitive—may not always be easy to decipher. But that voice—and the questions it asks—will make your heart ache.

This review appeared in print as “A Heartbreaking Exhibition of Staggering Beauty: 'The Curiosities of Janice Lowry' highlights the work of the late artist at the height of her game.”

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