“I do know this about myself—I am not particularly careful about specifics or the small moments. I’m much more of a big-picture person,” Rick Lowe admits to me, when I ask him about the buried constellation of crimson dots in an untitled 2018 drawing, on view in Radical Empathy. That makes sense for an artist who has dedicated his career to big projects, demonstrating the creative potential of entire communities in Houston, New Orleans, and Athens, Greece. And yet, Lowe can remember a specific drawing or painting just from a description of its colors over the phone—as if there is a muscle memory to amassing his reverberating openworks of marker and highlighter. Begun in 2017, these drawings and paintings may seem unexpected, a whimsical experiment in abstraction. Not so—in fact, the drawings come out of playing dominoes at Project Row Houses, and continuing them has focused and expanded the objectives of Lowe’s new, community-based projects. Social practice feeds into studio practice and back again.
The first domino drawing developed almost as a joke; or rather, a favor to Lowe’s longtime friend Jesse Lott, a force in the Houston art community known for his wit and found-object sculptures. According to Lowe, Lott is the kind of savvy artist who would say to neighbors, “Hey, when you finish that box of cornflakes, come back and let me show you how to make that into 25 bucks.” Dealers often try to talk Lott into showing his work, and he usually counters by saying that he will only if they also show the work of his community. And when Lowe was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2014, the galleries became interested in Lott’s proposition.
“Jesse was talking about his show at d. m. allison, and told me, ‘I need you in the show.’ And I was like, ‘Nah, I’m not doing that. I don’t really produce work,’” recalls Lowe. But Lott kept egging Lowe on, and it was at that point he pulled out a piece of paper and traced the outline of a hand of dominoes he’d just played. Lott looked at the drawing with curiosity, which sparked something in Lowe. He’d been photographing the patterns of leftover dominoes but wasn’t quite sure if he’d do anything with them. “Well yeah, okay,” Lott said. “Sign it up, put your name on it.”
From there, Lowe went back to his studio and started tracing and layering and coloring. His two drawings in Radical Empathy are some of his earliest, considered engagements with dominoes, and they bristle with the energy of undecided experimentation. It’s difficult to get nuance with marker and highlighter—the line is what it is—but the use of those crude, immediate mediums was purposeful, as Lowe wanted the layering to be the focus.
Lime green and azure pool in the corners and the center is a bit pink in the 2017 drawing. But these colors are nearly obscured by a vortex of both single and clumped dominoes, thickly traced in black. Partially legible notes and names are scrawled underneath: “city plaza,” “we only have … voice.”
“What you’re seeing is my struggle with my natural leaning to be literal, and my desire to be more complex,” Lowe said. “There’s one side of me that always wants to be more representative. I was looking at a land-use map dealing with the Third Ward, but forcing myself not to grid it out.”
Trained as a painter at Columbus State University (then Columbus College), Lowe was encouraged to be “straightforward and didactic” in his technique and narrative. In a 1991 exhibition at DiverseWorks in Houston, before Project Row Houses, Lowe erected a conspicuous, painted-plywood installation of a priest, a bureaucrat, and a soldier standing in front of some injured children and a world map. It’s a matter-of-fact illustration of American imperialism, justified and shielded by religious and political self-righteousness. Lowe was making work that was rough and ready, intended for outdoor rallies and protests, but was slowly becoming skeptical of its efficacy. He recalls that the response to the DiverseWorks exhibition was polite, muted. An old mentor stopped by and gave a one-word response: “Pity.” And as Lowe began to explore the possibilities of community-based projects, a fellow artist wrote to him, “I’m glad you chose politics over art.”
“On one hand this touched on my sense of myself as an artist,” Lowe said. “Pity implies a sort of catharsis, like you can check it off, it doesn’t shift thinking.” Lowe left formal artmaking behind, but those remarks “carved something in my soul.” He still considers himself a maker of things, but always had doubts about pursuing a studio practice. So when the domino drawings came along, he got worked up. “I was just pouring it on, going, going, going. For once I was making something that had an element more complex than one can just take in.”
Lowe feels that making drawings and paintings again has brought balance and vigor to his practice. At first, since most of Lowe’s projects are so collaborative, he was hesitant to make decisions in the studio. But the layering became reflective, like a reset from the demands of his typically goal-based projects.
“I’ve worked on some projects in the past that did not make it to the level I was shooting for, ironically because people were being too thoughtful about the collaboration and no one was willing to step forth and put themselves on the line as individuals. Drawing helped me remember social sculpture is a collective of individual voices.”
Rick Lowe is a Houston-based artist who is renowned for reinventing community revitalization as an art form through his revolutionary work and founding of Project Row Houses in Houston, a community support center and historic preservation initiative.
Alex Jen is a curator based in Chicago and a writer of criticism and personal essays on photography, architecture, and poetry. Jen is currently the Special Assistant to the President and Director at The Art Institute of Chicago.