"Even among art that aims to be free of traditional categories and definitions, there is an ever-present danger of calcification and rampant commercialization,” warns a recent dispatch from Atwater Village gallery Black Maria promoting its upcoming “No Brow” exhibit. “These dangers threaten to turn even the most unorthodox of movements into an exercise in mainstream banality. The very success of the Lowbrow movement may curb those features that once distinguished it from ‘Highbrow’ art, with its rules and value judgments.” I’ve actually been hearing this line of critique for a few years now — particularly since 2006 with the sudden departure of longtime Juxtapoz editor Jamie O’Shea and equally untimely demise of the Lowbrow journal of record’s publisher Fausto Vitello.
Juxtapoz, which claims to be the most widely read art magazine in the world, and Lowbrow were completely synonymous for a time. But the once-hermetic underground comics/hot-rod/tattoo/graffiti scene has exploded more than anyone could have imagined, with a bigger tent that includes digital artists, sneaker designers, collector’s-doll manufacturers and several generations of commercial illustrators ±— and an increasing number of gifted young artists from the Highbrow art world. Many of the past decade’s art-world stars were exploring the same mass-media-savvy sex-’n’-surrealism-tinged figuration that is Lowbrow’s bread and butter — and I’m talking everything from John Currin’s oily Russ Meyerisms to Matthew Barney’s self-lubricating architectural symbol orgies. With borders dissolving all around it, and lucrative cross-marketing with such Hot Topic–promoted lifestyle brands as “Goth,” “Skateboard,” “Punk Rock” and “Outsider Art,” the Lowbrow movement may have expanded beyond any identity distinguishable from the hipness-saturated mainstream. It’s just so hard to get a handle on the big picture.
One ambitious attempt is the blockbusteresque exhibit “In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor,” curated by Meg Linton and currently occupying both floors of the Laguna Art Museum. Both Linton and Laguna have a history of supporting the Lowbrow, as does Otis College, Linton’s curatorial home base and site of some of the first institutional acknowledgments of Lowbrow’s significance and currency back in the mid-’80s. Linton reaches further back than that, to “Fantastic Realism” guru Ernst Fuchs, posthumously discovered Outsider collage genius Henry Darger, black-velvet pioneer Edgar Leeteg, master of the paranoid landscape Irving Norman and crackpot modernist extraordinaire Stanislav Szukalski. But her basic curatorial strategy was to do a statistical analysis of the art featured in the first 10 years of Juxtapoz, then show a representative selection.
“The Juxtapoz Factor” certainly does this, incorporating signal works like Robert Williams’ titular 1968 masterpiece (that would be In the Land of Retinal Delights) alongside about one-sixth of the artists covered in that decade — exploring pretty much every nuance of Lowbrow’s pop-reference-laden, psychologically provocative and craft-obsessed figuration. At the same time, the show undermines a lot of preconceptions about Lowbrow, starting with scale. Lowbrow is rightfully linked to the innovative strategy of producing large quantities of small, affordable artworks for the masses — suggesting to some that Lowbrow artists can’t go large. Anchored by a million-dollar Mark Ryden, a previously unexhibited 120-square-foot Todd Schorr tour-de-force and Alex Grey’s dazzling 1985 psychedelic physiology-lesson triptych, Laguna’s cavernous main gallery blows that theory out of the water. The show also pointedly blurs distinctions by including such Art World luminaries as Mike Kelley, Takashi Murakami, Jim Shaw, Llyn Foulkes and Paul “Flying Poo” McCarthy, as well as boundary-straddling works by Margaret Kilgallen, Barry McGee, Phil Frost and other exemplars of the Beautiful Losers school.
Beautiful Losers — the show, the book, the movement, the movie — is probably the most acclaimed template for crossover between Lowbrow and mainstream, though its impact is more readily observable in the world of commercial graphic design than the Art World. Scene svengali Aaron Rose — whose Alleged Gallery in ’90s Manhattan was the flash point of the BL submovement — has finally completed the documentary component of his marketing Gesamtkunstwerk, and it’s actually very good. The artists mostly come off as nice folks, many struggling with the politics of their commercial success. Between the talking heads, Rose and co-director Joshua Leonard have pieced together bits of archival footage (Mark Gonzales!) into a visually hypnotic montage that echoes the stoner, street-based BL aesthetic.
There’s maybe a little too much echo in other areas. Weren’t punk rock and graffiti art and skateboarding and Tom Waits hobo-beatnik chic and street credibility all over with by 1987? At the absolute latest? And aren’t there hundreds — if not thousands — of little scenes like this all over America, and the world? Layer upon layer of dubious nostalgia separates Beautiful Losers from its alleged subcultural authenticity, and we find ourselves obliviously subsumed by a myth of community, a niche-market simulation of counterculture like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel. Or a Nike campaign. Which is fine, I guess — I actually thought the best art in the movie was Geoff McFetridge’s unapologetic ’70s-fetishizing PepsiOne commercial. As long as the legions of junior losers who see it don’t imagine their lottery number’s coming up anytime soon.