in 2003, Jonah Freeman, a graduate of the film program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, was scouting locations for his directorial debut, The Franklin Abraham, in Columbia University’s Prentis Hall. It was there that he ran into Justin Lowe, an MFA grad who had set up shop in one of the building’s studios. Neither of them knew it at the time, but it would be, as Bogart once said, the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Nine years and four exhibitions later, the pair of artists sit, relaxed, in the NoHo studio where they set up shop only a few days ago. The afternoon is one of July’s hottest; the air is heavy and the boys are tired. Freeman, 37, is sunk deep into an oversize chair, eyeing a nearby bowl of pistachios. Across from him, Lowe, 36, sits bolt upright, visibly preoccupied with preparing their monumental new exhibition, Stray Light Grey, due to open at New York’s Marlborough Chelsea gallery on September 13.
It could have just as easily not happened. In 2006, Lowe and Freeman, leases expired and eagerly in search of fresh accommodation, found themselves living by accident in the same East Williamsburg studio building. Their acquaintanceship soon evolved into friendship, founded on dovetailing interests that included film, art, and a fascination with what Lowe describes as the “heady space that the architecture of various places puts you in.”
Two years later, their first immersive collaboration, born from the “craziest proposal” the duo could conjure, was realized. Entitled Hello Meth Lab in the Sun, it was a home-sized, hyper- detailed installation through which gallerygoers journeyed from room to room, and descended—radically and architecturally—into a narrative of unhinged, drug-addled chaos, culminating in a determinedly realistic meth lab. The installation’s infamy—or, as Lowe fondly calls it, the “choose-your-own- adventure multiverse”—propelled it, in abbreviated and expanded incarnations, from Ballroom Marfa in Texas to Art Basel Miami Beach, before being duly dragged by Jeffrey Deitch to the art shaman’s since- shuttered Deitch Projects in New York.
Following the prodigious success of their debut collaboration, other projects were quick to follow. Lowe and Freeman’s relationship, self-described as an “ideal, never- ending think tank,” soon gave life to Bright White Underground, another intensely furnished, collocated labyrinth. This time, however, visitors were subject to a more pronounced, involved experience—a sense of walking through the parallel universe of a film, wherein, Freeman says, “sensitivity to the environment is heightened, like it is during travel.”
Running his hands through his hair, Freeman sighs and cracks open a pistachio. He knows, as does Lowe, that nearby, at the airless Acme Sand Blasting building in NoHo, a buzzing, sweaty mess of interns, designers, and artists are hard at work constructing the pair’s forthcoming project. Like their other work, Stray Light Grey promises to be a minutely observed, multistoried installation, with a jumble of juxtaposing elements, including a Kowloon ghetto, an antiquated off-track-betting space, and a pirate radio station. “We tried to capture the foggy notion of memory and things disappearing,” Lowe says.
Just as history is viewed subjectively, time, in this sense, is made fictional. The amplified environment of this installation will divorce visitors from “now” and propel them into a false “then,” wherein they experience the lived-in memories of an imagined metropolitan corridor called the San San Metroplex. The aim of this endeavor, as with all of their work, Lowe insists, is to provide people with “a lens through which to see the rest of their day. That’s precisely the hangover we want to give people.”
The duo know that transporting a person to another world is no small feat. But come September, when a visitor, caught unawares, traverses space-to-space and begins to get lost in a real unreal, a false and frozen time, all the hours they’ve spent putting it together will have been worth it. For now, Freeman and Lowe sit and enjoy, as in all great partnerships, the airy comfort of easy silence, each a yin to their counterpart’s yang. Looking over at Freeman, Lowe smiles. “Sometimes I just want to sit at home and make small collages.”
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Photography by Jeremy Liebman