King of Pop (Art)
PV artist Bret Rowe enjoys hanging with big ideas
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published: AZ, March, 2007
Download PDF of printed version
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay area during the Sixties, Bret Rowe remembers a home where the turbulent issues of the day peered out from magazine covers and television screens, but rarely made it into the nightly dinner table conversation.
“My parents would always be attuned to the landscape we were living in,” says Rowe, 44. “But they liked to reflect on it as little as possible.”
Rowe’s artwork, which recently finished a year-long retrospective at the Paradise Valley Town Hall (where he was honored as PV’s 2005-2006 Artist of the Year) and has been attracting a celebrity clientele, would fit it in perfectly amid such an archetypal boomer household.
All around the modest-sized home in the old Mountain Shadows neighborhood that he shares with his wife, jewelry designer Margaret Rowe, and their 6-year-old son, Rowe’s original silk screens hang like potent conversation topics just waiting to be plucked up off the wall.
There’s his companion pieces made of hundreds of plastic toy cowboys and Indians, the former spray-painted beige and the latter, red, that Rowe says symbolize “how lazy we are when we apply our stereotypes.”
His “Galactic Girl” acrylic looks like a comic book pin-up – until you zoom in on the text bubbles, which point to features suggesting tomorrow’s woman will be the one best equipped to save the world from pigheaded destruction.
Any of Rowe’s pieces could spark a spirited discussion – or not. Like jarring newspaper headlines turned into drink coasters by merely sitting on the coffee table for so long, Rowe’s creations also project a comfortable, humorous vibe that can brighten the room without necessarily enlightening the viewer.
“I’ve had high school kids walk by my pieces at art walks and go, ‘That looks cool. Can I come back later and read it?’” says Rowe, who considers himself as much writer as artist. “And I say, ‘Absolutely!’ That’s how this type of art is supposed to work. It’s all about putting the idea in a nutshell. You have to draw somebody in first, then they can read into it deeper.”
Some of Rowe’s pieces, like his mock history dissections “Mobstereotype” and “Gunslinger Grave-O-Gram,” are text-heavy works that require several viewings to fully digest. Others, like his “Geronimoney,” showing repeated images of the familiar Chiricahua Apache leader’s face on a U.S. $100 bill, are one-joke jolts that register immediately but then resonate.
“People come in and say, ‘Well, you’re selling me an idea.’ Exactly!” Rowe says. “But then so was [Andy] Warhol. So was [Roy] Lichtenstein.”
Like those pop art icons, Rowe also worked in commercial art before deciding to venture into the gallery world. After graduating from ASU with a degree in finance, Rowe gravitated toward graphic design and found work producing calendars for Tempe’s America West Airlines, which eventually led to his starting his own travel agency. There, he got into the graphic design grunt work of churning out catalogs and marketing materials.
Rowe didn’t consider selling his work as fine art until he accompanied his wife on some on jewelry-selling trips around Santa Monica and met some influential players who, like him, were fans of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg and Gerhard Richter. “With this genre,” Rowe quickly learned, “you can get places using your text and your graphics, your thoughts and techniques.”
Rowe found a couple Santa Monica gallery owners willing to take a chance on his art and soon saw his work attracting the attention of some Hollywood biggies, including, Rowe claims, Jack Nicholson, designer Georges Marciano and recently Kid Rock, whose manager, he says, purchased a piece on Harriet Tubman as a Christmas present for the rock star.
Rowe’s still innocent enough to become star struck whenever he spies a celebrity eyeing his work. “I had a call from a gallery owner the other day saying Bob Dylan was looking at my Al Capone piece,” he says, referring to his rendering of the famous mobster’s image on a Campbell soup can that mines irony out of the historical tidbit that the underworld kingpin funded Chicago’s Depression-era soup kitchens. “I told her, ‘Find some way to get it to the man!’”
While he admits some “art snobs” snub his ad-style approach and says he considers himself an outsider among the connoisseurs, Rowe is less humble when discussing his talents as an idea man.
“I think my ideas have a lot of substance,” he asserts. “When I’m gone, people will possibly see what my commentary on the world was and find some value in it.”
Certainly, not all of Rowe’s concepts are deep. His “Don’t Touch That Dial” goes no further than playing with the irony that the world’s first antibacterial soap was introduced at a time when most TV commercial breaks were preceded by that plea. “Choppers,” sprinkling graphics of motorcycles over the familiar Whoppers Malted Milk candy carton, seems content with obvious wordplay, and his “Widows 99” retreads an already quaint warning about Internet addiction causing marital strife.
So how does he decide which idea is worth blowing up into a sofa-sized keeper and which is best left at the cocktail party? In the end, Rowe’s greatest asset may be his unswerving dedication to his own brainstorms.
“A lot of artists get stopped when they hear that voice in their head that says, ‘What if people think it’s stupid, or ridicule you?’ With me, once I get an idea, I just have to get it out.”
That doesn’t mean Rowe takes shortcuts in bringing his high concepts to life. Ironically, while computers have made his style of pop culture mash-ups easier than ever to produce, Rowe resists doing a lot of the work on screen, preferring to get dirty in his garage inking up old-school silk screen equipment and dabbing his creations with raw materials appropriate to the message. His “Gunslinger” piece was done on cowhide and darkened with real Dodge City dirt, while the motorcycles on “Choppers” were painted with ink mixed in chocolate.
Not surprisingly, Rowe is an active parent when it comes to helping his first grader with art projects. Pity the poor classmates whose pallets are still limited to macaroni shells and paste.
“I’m working on a series now about game boards that my son and his friends have been interested in,” Rowe says, with a smile. “When it comes to art, my message to him is, ‘Do what you want to do, however you want to do it.’ If nothing else, art should be fun.”