From Houston to Athens, Rick Lowe Takes His Social Sculpture Global

In Athens more than 6,000 miles from his adoptive city of Houston, Rick Lowe is at home. Lowe first visited Greece in 2015, in advance of his participation in Documenta, the German exhibition of contemporary art, which marked its 14th installment in 2017 with the theme “Learning From Athens.” Lowe did just that, learning firsthand of the refugee crisis stoking tensions between local communities and asylum seekers arriving mainly from the Middle East and Africa. A longtime activist at home, Lowe saw this seemingly intractable circumstance abroad as a call to action.

Art, as Lowe conceives it, is a social as much as an aesthetic practice, requiring long-term engagement with specific people and places. His contribution to Documenta was the Victoria Square Project, a collaboration with the Greek artist Maria Papadimitriou that serves as a thriving communal hub of cross-cultural exchange, political action and artistic creation centered on empowering the city’s Victoria Square area, known for its high volume of refugees. Eight years on, he remains the project’s steward. VSP is art unfolding amid everyday life: struggle and joy, work and play, politics (hosting a mayoral debate) and culture (frequently staging talks, performances and exhibitions). It is only Lowe’s most recent foray into social sculpture, an expansive concept developed in the 1970s by the German artist Joseph Beuys to describe a practice that embraces the communal and political functions of art in reshaping the world.

Lowe, 61, first gained recognition in the 1990s for his radical community-based effort Project Row Houses. Alongside a collective of Houston-based artists, and with support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Elizabeth Firestone Graham Foundation, Lowe purchased two blocks of run-down shotgun houses in Houston’s historically Black Third Ward neighborhood and transformed them into art spaces and community centers. Though Lowe stepped away from daily operations in 2018, Project Row Houses still thrives. In its 30th year, it now comprises 39 structures across five city blocks and fosters arts education programs, community enrichment efforts and neighborhood development initiatives.

For all his innovation, Lowe’s artistic training was traditional. As an art student at Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia, during the late 1970s and early ’80s, he studied landscape painting in the manner of the Hudson River School. “It wasn’t really a decision for me,” he says. “It was more that I was going to a small, predominantly white college in the South with a very traditional art program.” After relocating to Houston and connecting with the painter John T. Biggers, Lowe shifted his work toward a more explicitly political and figurative style, which he believed allowed him “to speak more directly to a particular community or a particular context or circumstance within society.” Lowe’s approach was challenged in 1990, though, when a high school student visiting his studio with a class confronted him with a powerful pragmatic question, one that Lowe would later commemorate in the title of a breakout piece shown at the 2022 Whitney Biennial: “If Artists Are Creative, Why Can’t They Create Solutions?” This challenge led Lowe to Beuys’s social sculpture, which, along with Biggers’s influence, prompted Project Row Houses and a series of other community-based works, from Tulsa to Chicago, and now to Athens.

Social sculpture can be transformative, but it rarely leaves a tangible record. In response, in his studio in Houston, Lowe has turned in recent years back to painting and drawing as a means of archiving this otherwise transitory and ephemeral work. Last September, Lowe debuted “Meditations on Social Sculpture,” his first New York solo exhibition, with Gagosian. It featured new work inspired by his community-based practice, particularly Project Row Houses and the Victoria Square Project. Many of the works involve paper collages that evoke domino tiles, vestiges of the games Lowe played with locals from Houston to Athens. “Finding folks at the domino table has been one of the great gifts for me,” Lowe says. Building on the improvised order of specific games, his canvases map physical space, as well as social relations and psychological states. They are intricate and variegated, playing with scale, with transience and permanence, with memory and evanescence. They are maps back to community, to the natural state of humans as social beings in an age of fracture and insolation.

A few weeks before he left Houston for Athens, where he will have two major solo exhibitions on view this summer, Lowe caught up with T over the phone.

What’s the first piece of art you ever made?

I don’t know if I want to tell you the honest truth or if I want to try to be a little bit more sophisticated.

Forget sophistication. We’re getting into it today!

OK. I’m from a huge family — there’re 12 of us — from Alabama. Poor, rural Alabama. No art classes. None of that stuff. My first drawing, and I must have made it at 12 years old or something, it was a drawing of a centerfold woman from Jet magazine. My siblings always laugh at me. I think somebody still has it somewhere. So you know where my head was. But that was childhood stuff. I didn’t really start making art until I was in college, where I did my first landscape painting.

What’s the first work you ever sold?

In my early days of painting, I had an anti-commercial slant to my thinking, because it was figurative work dealing with issues that were very personal to me — Black issues, issues of poverty — and I was conflicted about how those fit within a market. I had a hard time thinking that someone would own something that was speaking to the misfortunes of someone else. For that reason, I didn’t sell any of the work from my first years as a painter. And then I went into social practice, where there were no objects to be sold. But as I made my way back [to drawing and painting], I started doing these domino drawings. I sold the first one through a little gallery here in Houston.

When would that have been?

That was 2015, 2016.

So you were in your 50s before you sold your first work of art. What do you think your anticapitalist 20-year-old self would critique, and what would he celebrate about where you are today?

He’d probably scratch his head and say, “You’re selling the revolution!” But I think in the right context, he would see that revolution moves in many ways. There are many roles to play. That’s what my younger self didn’t understand. I was so absorbed in the practical elements [of activism] — trying to improve the conditions of the lives of people — that I neglected to understand the value of the poetics.

Where do you find that poetics?

It was always all around us. One of the things that Black people have never failed on is how to look cool. That’s a very aesthetic thing. That’s a very poetic thing. It didn’t matter what the conditions were — the practical conditions — people still express that poetics in ways that are accessible to them, like at the very basic level, in their bodily adornment.

When you start a new piece, where do you begin?

I just pick a spot. John Biggers once asked the mathematician Bob Powell to explain the sacred art of geometry. Powell tried, but then threw his hands up. “Artists! Let me just draw it for you.” So he drew this 12-page [sequence]. The first page is just blank. There are infinite possibilities. The second page takes a leap of faith. You just put your compass down. And once you do that, you’ve got the beginning of a place. I take the same approach with my paintings. When I have a blank canvas, I think, “This is a universe.” Then I’ll just start. Glue a couple of pieces — my little domino chips, my imaginary domino games. It grows from there.

Given that approach, how do you know when you’re done?

That’s the big challenge. But I think it’s an intuitive thing. You work on it and you work on it until you don’t feel like there’s anything else you can bring to it. Paintings, they speak to the artist as well. They’re speaking to us and telling us where we are and where we’re going. And at a certain point, they’ll tell you: You’re done.

What music do you play when you’re making art?

As a teenager in the ’70s in the South, the white people had their music, the Black people had their music. They had rock; we had soul. It was pretty simple. None of us dealt with anything outside of that. But when I went to college and started to explore, that’s when I realized that my interests were broad. I was introduced to classical music. I was introduced to jazz. And later, as things evolved, it was hip-hop, punk, new wave and everything else. I just started going experimental. I will say that when I am soul searching and going deep into who I am, I go back to my roots. I will put on some gospel. Or I’ll do Curtis Mayfield, Lionel Richie. Actually, I had a Zoom call with Lionel Richie just the other day and I found out he grew up about 30 miles from where I did.

Dominoes play a big role in some of your recent work. What draws you to the game?

My connection with dominoes feeds off my inclination toward activism. My way of being an activist is about connecting with people and community organizing. Who are the voices? What are their concerns? I found out fairly early on as I started doing community-engaged art — or social practice art, as people like to call it — that when you talk to people in group settings, like community meetings, you get a particular kind of response. People don’t want to sound stupid. They’re careful about what they’re saying. But when you’re sitting with people playing cards or dominoes or checkers, where everybody’s just relaxed, that’s when you really get to know them. So [playing games] became a key component of my community-engaged work.

I see how that would be effective in Houston. What’s worked for you in Greece?

When I started working on the Victoria Square Project, I was trying to figure out how to connect with that community. So I’d walk through the neighborhood and would just check things out. And lo and behold, one day, I see a group of people gathered around a little table. I went over to look and they were playing dominoes. They were playing a little differently than we play here in Houston. But the thing about dominoes: Every house has its own rules. So I watched them play enough until I could figure out their approach. It turned out they weren’t Greek, they were Albanian. I nodded to them, “Can I get in the next game?” And they all looked like, “Who is this guy? What is he doing?" I got into the game. I made a few mistakes, sure. But before I knew it, they were fascinated with this new person playing. These Albanians became the guardians of the space where the Victoria Square Project is held.

Your art is engaged with community — with specific people and places. At the same time, you’ve moved decidedly toward abstract painting. How do you square those two impulses?

My progression has been toward an expanded, and I guess I would call it a more mature, understanding of politics and how the world works. Early on, after I learned how to do landscapes, I rejected that because it did not allow me to speak directly to society. So I moved to figurative work. When I was doing figurative work, the whole point was to keep it narrowly focused on working-class issues, to speak directly to working-class folks. As I was doing that work, I was challenged by this kid who basically told me that my paintings were showing them what they already saw every day. “If you’re an artist and your job is to create,” he asked me, “then why can’t you create solutions?” That got me into a different framework. With the social sculpture work [like Project Row Houses], I think I truly started to understand a broader context for political work. The primary beneficiaries of works like Project Row Houses are people in the Third Ward community. Equally important to making that work happen, though, were the supporters beyond the community from all around the country. That became an important part of how the work could operate on multiple levels. And that actually set the stage for me to move into abstraction as a way to look at and talk about these urban and psychological issues that we’re wrestling with every day.

That’s a long way from landscapes.

The connection between my paintings in the early ’80s, when I was learning landscape painting, and my paintings now, is that they [both] allow me to look at the earth — the land, the place where I grew up in the South. I would go out and take photographs of landscapes. Before that point, it was just where I grew up; it was just there. But as I started to photograph and look at the land, I started to notice the deep green pine tree forest and the red clay soil. Those [hues and textures] became the basis for the paintings that I was making, but it also became imprinted upon me. “This is where I’m from.” So when I think about these abstract mapping pieces I’m doing now, I sometimes think of them as landscapes. The perspective has just shifted from straight on to a bird’s-eye view, and then I can start looking at it politically: how the landscape through maps tells us stuff and offers us things to think about. From time to time, as I’m doing these works, I’m drawn to that palette of greens and that rust color, the red that burns through the soil there. So there are times as I’m painting now when I can feel a deep kinship with my earlier painting days.

How many hours of creative work do you think you do in a day?

Well, it depends. Like right now, man, I’ve been hitting the clock at anywhere from 14 to 16 hours a day.

Are you kidding me?

It’s such a joy, though. It’s such a pleasure. You know, I feel like this moment right now for me, getting ready for these shows in Athens, this is like my N.B.A. playoffs. There’s no stopping. As Kobe [Bryant] once said, “You rest at the end.”

You’re a basketball fan? Who’s your team?

I don’t really have a team. I have players. For the last 10 years or so, it’s been the Splash Brothers [Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors]. It’s just beautiful to watch them play. And before that, there was my man Kobe. Kobe’s always been an inspiration to me because I like to think we have a similar kind of mentality. I always tell people, “I may not be the most talented, I may not be the most this or that but you’re not gonna outwork me.” That’s always been my mode of life. Whenever I’m on to something, I’m there.

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