"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.
Still, the BL brigade deserve the benefit of the doubt, in spite of their whorishness. The challenge of generating an uncompromising subculture in the face of the efficiently voracious mechanics of advertising and consumption has seemed insurmountable since at least the days of punk. One attempt to circumnavigate co-option was the ironic post-punk adoption of hopelessly square stylistic motifs of cocktail culture by many of the first Lowbrow aficionados. Surely no one would latch onto the depleted pop tropes of the Eisenhower era — the tiki bars and easy-listening music — as the next big trend!
Well, we all know how that turned out. But the sheer peculiarity of tiki culture’s cycles of death and rebirth — from Polynesian ancestor totems to post–World War II American exoticism to recycled kitsch camouflage to subversive neohedonism to Madison Avenue flavor of the month — makes it perhaps the weirdest stand-alone mythology of the Lowbrow universe. In an almost equally improbable curatorial coup (from an original idea by the master of improbable curatorial coups, Jeffrey Vallance), Polynesia experts Doug Nason and Jeff Fox have assembled a handsome overview of several incarnations of tiki culture in the museum of Glendale’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
This isn’t as strange a match as it seems — Forest Lawn founder Dr. Hubert Eaton’s populist, art-friendly mandate has been on a collision course with hipness for some time — and the museum collection does contain Henry, one of the few moai heads to ever escape from Easter Island. Around this iconic centerpiece, Nason has assembled an impressive array of more or less authentic artifacts from the South Pacific, as well as photos from his personal expeditions. Fox’s section traces the waning of authenticity in favor of American pop currency, from the decades’ worth of faux tikis by chain-saw-and-palm stump master Leroy Schmaltz of Whittier’s Oceanic Arts and Shag’s personal collection of vintage tiki mugs to an array of Imagineering sketches for Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room.
Rounding out this anthropological survey is a selection of contemporary work — mostly Lowbrow — reconfiguring the tiki mystique in typically extravagant visions, returning the appropriated icons to the brink of a renewed mythological potency. Yet, in spite of its coherence and attention to detail, “In Search of Tiki” feels like it’s missing something, say, in the full-frontal blood-sacrifice cannibal-orgy department. “We had to tone it down a little,” admits Nason, “with Disney and Forest Lawn involved.” With the rough edges that gave Lowbrow its outlaw reputation smoothed out by this newfound common ground with the family-values set, and the Art World bending over to assimilate it, maybe the Juxtapoz juggernaut has arrived at an impasse. Totems, totems everywhere. But where’s the taboo?
Turns out it’s in Burbank. Hyaena, a little goth boutique/Lowbrow gallery on Olive Avenue, has become embroiled in controversy due to its most recent show (which closed September 5). Harkening back to the formative dynamics of the Lowbrow scene, Hyaena is very much community oriented, providing a venue for several dozen local junior Juxtapozers, while maintaining an edge by selling artworks by such controversial figures as Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy. These crocheted scorpions and clown paintings never set anyone off, but when owner Bill Shafer decided to give Stu Mead his first American solo show in a decade, the shit hit the fan.
Germany-based U.S. expat Mead — best known for his contributions to the Art Police and Manbag zines out of St. Paul/Minneapolis — paints modestly scaled illustration-based images of pre-adolescent girls in a variety of fantastic, psychologically disturbing scenarios, often of a sexual nature. His work has been exhibited around the world since the ’80s and has been the subject of several publications by the radical French art-publishing house Le Dernier Cri, including a new limited portfolio of screen prints titled Krampussy (which at $45 is my Art Bargain of the WeekT).
Understandably, many galleries are skittish about displaying artworks depicting naked prepubescent nymphets sliding down the tongue of a giant Satanic figure or giving a golden shower to a fresh pile of shit, as there’s always some Republican hypocrite looking to bust into the “protection” racket. So it wasn’t surprising that the modest show at Hyaena stirred up a small tearoom tempest. What was surprising was that the protest came not from the Legion of Decency but from a small clutch of gallery artists who didn’t want their reputations besmirched by association.
Led by an incensed nonartist boyfriend (who actually threatened to call the police), a trio of female artists withdrew their work from Hyaena — including Queenie, whose show of cute dead-child paintings and dolls was the next scheduled show. A group of unconflicted gallery artists pulled together an anti-censorship show (“When Life Hands You Lemmings ...”) to fill the gap. But really. “Outlaw” artists ratting on other artists and DIY-gallery owners on the basis of good taste and moral fiber? Lowbrow seems to be passing through some awfully painful contortions as it leaves its perpetual adolescence — and for what? Mature Art World citizenship? Where’s Charlie Manson when you need him?
STU MEAD | Hyaena | 1928 W. Olive Ave., Burbank | (818) 972-2448 | Closed
WHEN LIFE HANDS YOU LEMMINGS...| Hyaena | 1928 W. Olive Ave., Burbank | (818) 972-2448 | Through Sept. 15
IN THE LAND OF RETINAL DELIGHTS: THE JUXTAPOZ FACTOR | Laguna Art Museum | 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach | (949) 494-8971 | Through Oct. 5
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IN SEARCH OF TIKI | Forest Lawn Museum | 1712 S. Glendale Ave., Glendale | (800) 204-3131 | Through Jan. 4
BEAUTIFUL LOSERS | Landmark Nuart Theater, West L.A. | Aug. 29-Sept. 8
NO BROW | Sept. 27-Oct. 18 | Black Maria Gallery | 3137 Glendale Blvd., L.A. | (323) 660-9393