Peter Lowe at Waterhouse & Dodd by Alan Fowler
The small but well-selected display of work by Peter Lowe at Waterhouse & Dodd's gallery in Albemarle Street confirms the artist's place as a seasoned practitioner in the long tradition of European constructive and geometric abstraction. It is a tradition, triggered by Russian constructivism, but then spread throughout Europe following the founding by Theo van Doesburg of the International Faction of Constructivists at Düsseldorf in 1922.
Prior to the Second World War, constructivist movements and groups were founded in many countries across the continent – though not in the UK, where this approach to abstraction first took root in the early 1950s with the Constructionists, grouped around Victor Pasmore. Two of the artists in this group - Kenneth and Mary Martin – tutored Peter Lowe when he was a student at Goldsmiths College. Inspired by their ideas, and later by those of other European constructive artists such as Max Bill and Richard Lohse, Lowe produced his first constructed reliefs in the early 1960s.
Kenneth Martin once described the constructive approach as “the building by simple elements of an expressive whole” – the elements being basic geometric forms, organised or developed in accordance with essentially logical and often arithmetic systems. The aim was not to produce geometric diagrams or mathematical models but to evolve visually satisfying “whole” objects and images. This approach was developed in the UK by the Systems Group, of which Lowe was an active member. It was formed in 1969 and was active throughout most of the 70s. Lowe's ongoing involvement in the post-war pan-European scene was also confirmed by his being one of only two UK artists invited to join the Internationaler Arbeitskreis für Konstruktive Gestaltung; the other being Jean Spencer, also a Systems group member, who was given a retrospective exhibition at the Redfern Gallery last year. Although many of the post-war constructivist art groups, including the Systems group, have since been dissolved, a number of their former members, including Lowe, have continued to work in the constructive mode, and the current display of his work spans a 50 year period from the 1960s to the present day. This continuity shows that an approach which might be thought to be inherently limited in its imagery in fact offers the possibility of what Malcolm Hughes, another Systems group member, once described as “order with infinite variety”.
Variety in Lowe's case takes at least three forms. Firstly, he has used many different materials, techniques and formats. Secondly he has continually evolved new themes or structuring systems. Thirdly, once a new theme has been discovered he has applied this to the production of a range of related variants. All these characteristics can be seen within the current display. In the installation shot, above, there is a 3D table piece, reliefs made respectively of Perspex and wood, and an acrylic painting on linen. A very recent work elsewhere in the gallery is a metal sculpture, Transformable Construction (2013), made of rods which can be freely swivelled around each other and around a central point to create different formations – a rare example of a work which invites the physical interaction of the viewer.
Lowe also produces several different types of prints, while on the continent he has made large scale public sculptural constructions in stone and metal. Even the small number of works in this display use a variety of formational themes or systems. Several imply underlying grids. Others apply numbering sequences to determine the spatial relationship between elements in the imagery. And although the square is perhaps the most common geometric element, others such as triangles, root rectangles circles and the spiral form the basic elements in many of Lowe's works.
In White Relief a square base board with an underlying grid has some square cells of this grid cut out and stacked on other parts of the base. This apparently simple concept or system has been used by Lowe over a period of some forty years. To produce numerous variations, often in grey or black, and in different sizes and materials. They include some 2D prints and drawings, and one large public work in Hesse (Germany) constructed in 1986 as part of an Arbeitskreis project. Another example of a theme and variations can be seen in the painting of triangles inside a dodecagon.
Variants of this theme which Lowe has produced over a number of years include paintings and prints in various sizes and colours in which only the triangles are shown, and a monoprint in which three squares replace the four triangles. This work illustrates the application of a combination of geometric and arithmetic factors. Within the geometry of the dodecagon and equilateral triangles is a 1 2 3 4 numeric sequence. The base of the small green triangle is one side of the dodecagon: the white triangle spans two sides, the large green triangle spans three sides and the base of the red triangle spans four sides of the dodecagon. (The apex of a fifth triangle across five sides would fall outside the dodecagon, and would thus break the system.)
Viewed as a whole, this display shows that although Lowe's systems-based approach produces a wide variety of imagery in a range of different materials, all this is all held together by the common characteristics of simplicity, precision, clarity, rationality and meticulous craftsmanship. All the elements in each work are basically simple in geometric form, and any arithmetic structuring is similarly basic. These works are not complex in their visual forms or underlying logic. And they are beautifully made in terms of a precise and accurate working of materials. The result is a range of objects and images which are immensely satisfying to look at and which can also reward analysis in terms of discovering their structural logic. Not that an analytical approach is essential to an appreciation of Lowe's work. Different viewers perceive the same art object in different ways and for many, a judgment of the quality of his constructions will be based solely on the visual effectiveness of the complete object or image – Kenneth Martin's “expressive whole”.
An interesting extra in this display is the inclusion of a few works by the French artist Georges Folmer (1895 – 1977). He is not as well-known in the UK as some other European constructive artists, but he often exhibited in the 1930s in France alongside artists of the stature of Kandinsky and Delauny. After the war, he founded the constructivist Groupe Mesure with Jean Gorin, helped with the founding of André Bloc's Groupe Espace, was described by Michel Seuphor as “a tenacious constructor” and for a period headed the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles in Paris. Although not referred to by Lowe as one of his European influences, his inclusion in this display acts as a reminder of Lowe's place within a broad European context of constructivist geometric abstraction.
In a note written in 1996, Lowe explained his own approach to this form of art in a summary which is clearly evidenced by the works in this current display. He wrote:
“My work deals with rhythm and the pleasures and surprises associated with the ambiguities of perception. It also reflects my liking for the simple and obvious… Rhythm refers to recurrence which can be complex and simple, obvious and subliminal. I make objects because I seek the satisfaction of ordered relationships and patterns which exist nowhere else.”
In a small showing of the kind at Waterhouse and Dodd it is, of course impossible fully to exhibit how these ideas permeate the whole of Lowe's oeuvre over more than fifty years. Perhaps this display of Lowe's constructions, reliefs and paintings is best viewed as an intriguing taster for what at some point could be a fascinating and comprehensive retrospective exhibition.
First published on the website Saturation Point http://www.saturationpoint.org.uk/reviews.html