I have to admit, before going to see Alex Lowery's latest exhibition of paintings at Art First on Eastcastle Street, I had to curb some of my enthusiasm and tell myself not to get my hopes too high; I wasn't familiar with Lowery's work, and it's happened too often that a painting exhibition looks a great prospect when the works are seen as images in print, but then these same works fail to come to life as paintings when seen in the flesh. As it turns out, I was able to let my enthusiasm loose when I got to the gallery. This exhibition didn't disappoint, and delivered in a way that better exhibitions do, with works that create an engaging space that you want to stay and immerse yourself in. I left wanting to see more of this body of work to go deeper into what Lowery explores here.
As a general rule, even though it can prove tricky, I find it's best with any exhibition to get to grip with the works first without looking at any literature, especially the ever present press release. If works need this crutch to function, then we're off to a bad start. In the case of Light Industrial, practice this little manoeuvre and you'll immediately find yourself on more interesting critical ground, principally because the question of place remains open and undefined (unless you're already quite familiar with Lowery's work), but pressing and crucial at the same time.
The works in this show are orientated around an exploration of coastal landscapes and peripheral geographies. Except for one or two paintings whose language drifted towards describing a more specific British topography - while being reminiscent of Edward Hopper's desolate American landscapes at the same time - all you could say about these paintings with any real certainty is that they felt European. They seemed to revel in that peculiar, uncanny blandness you might find on the Autobahn, the suburbs of Dubrovnik, or Leigh-on-Sea.
Lowery has produced works that use the idea of limits as a point of departure; the limits of land and sea, most obviously, but also the limits - or extremes - of human intervention on a natural landscape. Bland, utilitarian man-made structures feature frequently in these paintings; service roads that have long left the motorway skirt silently underneath distant mountain ranges; warehouses stand looming and mute on the horizon; an isolated hut, a final outpost, stands unmanned at the edge of a pier. These landscapes offer little in the way of life, there is little for people to do, and appropriately, there are no people to be seen.
At the same time, the simple geometric forms created by these structures give Lowery a framework on which to organise bold compositions of bright, flat, pastel colours. At times (but maybe not often enough), an interesting relationship emerges between Lowery's clean, decisive treatment of these man-made structures and the scratchier, more speculative brush work he uses for the surrounding natural landscape. Paradoxically, the latter reaches more earnestly towards life, sometimes literally, when brush marks resolve themselves into the suggestion of distant settlements and roads carved on mountains, travelling inland with purpose.
To read the press release and other literature is to enter into the safer space of proper names where you can be guided towards a settled interpretation for these works and understand them within the context of a specific location. This doesn't damage what Lowery has done here, it may even be of a kind of importance, but I think the works do enough in themselves to be better than that. This is a very satisfying exhibition and I recommend seeing it and judging for yourself.