Lowe ride: Artist is building the ‘Swank’ life

Artist Jean Lowe with the papier-mache Hummer she built for her Quint Gallery show, "Swank."
(Courtesy of Lile Kvantaliani)

At Quint Gallery, Encinitas artist Jean Lowe examines do-gooder consumerism via a giant Hummer sculpture


Entering Jean Lowe’s Encinitas studio isn’t exactly like stepping into a dreamworld, but it’s pretty damn close. It’s filled with spectacular mise-en-scène-style painted artworks and papier-mâché pieces. Look up, and one might spot ornamental vases rendered with the Coors logo. A close examination of books on a shelf actually reveals them to be painted renderings with tongue-in-cheek titles.

At one point during our interview, I almost sit on a couch that is being constructed specifically for Lowe’s newest solo show at Quint Gallery in La Jolla.

“No, no, it’s OK,” she says as I apologize profusely. “It’s actually functional. Or it will be.”

She goes on to explain that the couch, once completed, will serve as something of a resting area for “Swank,” which opened Saturday, Oct. 1 at Quint Gallery. Threading the needle between pop, conceptual and installation art, Lowe will take the gallery space and render it to make it look like a car dealership, complete with magazines, signage and even replicated beverages created by the artist.

“There will also be real beverages, of course,” says Lowe, just after showing me a painted facsimile of a vintage “Cigar Aficionado” magazine, complete with a cartoonish portrait of Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover.

Encinitas artist Jean Lowe, who has a new exhibit called "Swank" at Quint Gallery in La Jolla.
(Courtesy of Lile Kvantaliani)

On Saturday, Oct. 8 and Oct. 9, during the La Jolla Art & Wine Festival, the Quint staff will also serve as representatives or, rather, car salespeople, greeting patrons as potential customers, which adds something of a performative aspect to the show. There will also be an additional actress on the street to, as Lowe puts it, “lure” festival-goers into the gallery/dealership. Additionally, there will be paintings by her husband, the artist Kim MacConnel, on the wall, and made to look like what one might see in an actual car dealership. Also on the walls will be video loops that Lowe collaborated on with artist Lile Kvantaliani that she says are “based on the type of crap you see in waiting rooms.”

And while Lowe has done dual exhibitions with MacConnel in the past, “Swank” will mark the first time she’s collaborated with so many people.

“That’s just really fun for me. I’ve never had so much collaboration, but they’re into it,” Lowe says. “What’s fun is that ambiguity and also letting go of control a little bit.”

With that, we both look over at the centerpiece of the show, the nearly completed “Swank Tank.” It’s a to-scale sculptural duplication of a Hummer EV SUV, General Motors’ recently announced reboot of the gaudy, gas-guzzling “supertruck” that the company has reintroduced as an environmentally friendly electric vehicle. The 18-foot Hummer is constructed from cardboard and accented with some of Lowe’s go-to materials, such as papier-mâché and paint. Sizable and bulbous as it is in Lowe’s studio, the Swank Tank is made to be easily disassembled and reconstructed at Quint, and yet, as it is now, it’s still majestic despite its farcical intentions.

“It’s been challenging to make something that was both sturdy, but could also come apart,” says Lowe. “But it’s really just a shell, there’s really not much going on inside. There’s some drywall screws that just make it snap together.”

The genesis of the project came when the Quint team approached her about doing something that they could debut during the La Jolla Art & Wine Festival. Something that would have a street component for the gallery’s festival booth, as well as a component inside the gallery.

Jean Lowe returns to Quint Gallery for a solo show
Jean Lowe returns to Quint Gallery for a solo show where she’ll be transforming the gallery into a performative car dealership, complete with a papier mache Hummer and portraits of gallery staff as car salespeople.
(Courtesy of Lile Kvantaliani)

“I’m pretty much a literalist so my mind immediately went to some kind of streetcar,” Lowe recalls before conceding that “Swank” has now surpassed any sort of literalism. “The show is definitely concerned with the issues I’ve been dealing with in different ways.”

This dutiful examination of issues of consumerism is something of a style that Lowe has perfected throughout her multi-decade career.

She says she has “lost count” of how many shows she’s done at Quint spaces over the years, with past ones examining everything from how men depict women in art (2020’s “POW!”) to big-box stores (2012’s “Hey Sexy!”). Most recently, she’s fresh off “Your Place in the Multiverse: Jean Lowe,” her first career survey of work from the past 20 years. The exhibition — which featured everything from paintings and sculptures to installations and video work — first debuted at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University before wrapping up at the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach.

“I think we all have our content from the start, from when we’re a kid, and some are lucky enough to figure out how to mine it,” says Lowe, who first began creating artistic renderings of things like furniture while attending UC San Diego in the late ’80s. “So I’ve always been interested in the power that things have over us and what they signal about us. How value is assigned to stuff, and in the art world that always seems sort of arbitrary.”

Lowe is interested in examining the representational modalities of everyday life, the hypocrisies we live within while navigating a consistent bombardment from late-stage capitalism. Of course, on the surface, her work is a brilliant comeuppance of consumeristic tendencies and self-improvement marketing, but it’s also tender, empathetic and, more importantly, fun.

With roots in German Dadaism, Lowe once described her work as “conceptual-decorative,” but “Swank” feels more blatant, almost brutalist in nature. This is certainly intentional, but just as with all of Lowe’s work, there is a playful, almost cosmological presentation that leaves the viewer smiling through their self-examination.

“I’m interested in making work that challenges assumptions about things we usually don’t give a second thought about,” Lowe says. “I think you could say that with my artwork, I try to reframe what I’m given. Across the board and in all the work, I want to take something that we’re so utterly familiar with and make you think about it differently.”

Still, the fact that a reception for the show will happen during the La Jolla Art & Wine Festival, a perennial event in what is a highly affluent neighborhood, bears mentioning. Lowe downplays any sort of overt subversiveness when it comes to “Swank,” but concedes that the concepts explored in the show might be lost on some viewers — the ones, for example, who might be on waiting list for a vehicle she describes as “a blatant display of wealth and do-gooderism.”

“That’s always fine with me if the work goes over their head, because it’s fun and then there’s more to be unpeeled if they’re in the mood,” Lowe says.

I ask her then, what, exactly, would she hope to be the main takeaway for someone walking into “Swank.”

“A good time,” she says, matter of factly. “Aesthetic pleasure.”

Jean Lowe: ‘Swank’

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturdays. Through Nov. 28. Artist’s reception, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 8, during the La Jolla Art & Wine Festival

Where: Quint Gallery, 7655 Girard Ave., La Jolla

Phone: (858) 454-3409

Admission: Free


Combs is a freelance writer.