All the regulars were there. The minor (and even major) celebrity collectors, the big behind-the-scenes players, the alternate art stars, and a good portion of the many-thousand-strong local audience for Lowbrow art — as usual a show in themselves: tattooed psychobilly holdouts and impossibly coifed hot-rod pinup girls pushing the envelope of the push-up brassiere. The occasion was the Track 16 Gallery opening of an exhibition celebrating the eighth year — what is that, the Naugahyde anniversary? — of publication for Juxtapoz magazine, the scrappy Lowbrow art journal founded by Big Daddy RothZap ComicsHelter Skelter alumnus Robert Williams in 1994.
Building on the success of Williams’ own widely distributed softcover art books (Visual Addiction, Zombie Mystery Paintings) and hardcore skate-punk magazines like sister High Speed Productions publication Thrasher, Juxtapoz surpassed all expectations by capturing a greater audience than most of the “real” art magazines (third highest circulation of any art magazine, and more than double Artforum‘s), and jump-starting an enormous trade in low-priced multiples — initially in the traditional form of prints and posters but more significantly in Zippo lighters, key chains, purses, T-shirts, skateboards and other forms of inspired cottage licensing deals. The self-proclaimed “new art magazine for a new art movement” also became a sort of audition space for more upscale illustration gigs, and Lowbrow aesthetics — which had already established a foothold in the post-punk music industry — began to creep into improbable venues like Time magazine and The New Yorker.
The Track 16 show pretty much runs the gamut of the Juxtapoz aesthetic. Almost exclusively figurative (with a nod to graffiti art in the form of pioneer piecer Zephyr’s Original Sketch for Memorial Wall for Dondi White, and the token geometric abstractions of Williams‘ spouse, Suzanne), the work ranges from technically virtuosic illustration to borderline-incompetent doodling, and usually incorporates sex or violence or both. This could describe a great deal of contemporary fine art, but one important distinction lies in Lowbrow’s genealogy. Most of the work here traces its lineage — without irony or other mediation — to the history of vernacular American visual art: movies and TV and advertising as well as less-beaten pop-art tracks such as Populuxe design, black-velvet painting, psychedelic posters, sign painting, pulp porn, sci-fi and horror, and carnival art. All in addition to the core visual vocabulary deriving from the lower- and middle-class subcultural niches of hot rod, tiki, tattoo, surf, rock & roll and comix.
“What‘s great about Juxtapoz is that it got placed in the art-magazine section instead of those other categories,” observes Southern-gothic glam-’n‘-trank diva Georganne Deen, one of the few artists included in the show whose audience encompasses both high art and Lowbrow. “And as a result, young artists and people from other countries have no idea that it doesn’t represent a legitimate piece of the art world in the States. Consequently it gets more and more acceptable as art every year, despite its complete lack of pedigree or papers or whatever.” Indeed, The Art World (TAW)‘s ignore-it-and-maybe-it-will-just-go-away strategy, having failed, has modulated into pretend-we-thought-of-it-first, and resulted in a recent bicoastal gallery glut of illustration-based painting riddled with Lowbrow references.
Many of the pieces in the eighth-anniversary show would blend seamlessly with current posh gallery fare — Marco Almera’s brown-scale supergraphic Flight, for example, looks straight out of UCLA‘s class of ’02. Mark Mothersbaugh‘s deftly designed collagist modifications of old post cards, digitally reworked and enlarged, make you wish the Rugrats empire would go under, if only to give the former Devo front man more time in the art studio. Usually acerbic Wicked Sister comic artists Mary Fleener and Kristine Kryttre both offer luminous, surprisingly non-confrontational paintings, and Gary Baseman’s four-panel paintingcomic strip reiterates the formal exuberance and dizzy energy of his recent solo show at La Luz de Jesus Gallery. Artists like Todd Schorr, the Clayton brothers, RK Sloane and Eric White would be snapped up by TAW if they hadn‘t already established themselves high in the Lowbrow realm. More recently, emergent outsiders like the Bay Area Margaret KilgallenBarry McGee school (conspicuous in their absence) were championed simultaneously by the Lowbrow establishment as well as by forward-looking art-world enclaves such as N.Y.’s Drawing Center, UCLA Hammer and the Philadelphia ICA.
But most of the artists in the Juxtapoz exhibit haven‘t benefited from this assimilationist trend; the ones who do have an art-world presence — Deen, Jeffrey Vallance, Michael McMillen, Sandow Birk, Lyn Foulkes and Salomon Huerta — have crossed from high to low, not the other way around. TAW has managed to find or manufacture its own stars, unencumbered by the us-vs.-them mentality of the Lowbrow set, adroitly avoiding having to concede to — or even acknowledge — Lowbrow’s implicit charges of elitism and hypocrisy. This actually turns out to be a mixed blessing for the Lowbrow scene: While the artists don‘t get to partake of the relatively astronomical prices of museum-sanctioned art or the delirious cachet of a review in Artforum, the scene and its participants can maintain their oppositional position untainted by the patronage of their betters. For the time being.
The problem with subcultures is that the distinctive visual codes developed to signal their alienation from the mainstream are very easily appropriated and put in the service of the system they were intended to subvert. Witness Harley-Davidson’s successful marketing annexation of the Hell‘s Angels’ stink and threat, or that TV ad for Asian sweatshop– assembled Nike sneakers using Iggy‘s “Search & Destroy” as a soundtrack. The Juxtapoz world may find that, as TAW’s anointed clones (call them Juxtapozeurs) increasingly mimic the stylistic conventions of Lowbrow art, the parallel systems of validation and distribution it has nurtured will be robbed of their mana. Then, like so many other art-world flavors-of-the-month before, the three C‘s of art-world support (Collector, Curator and Critic) could summarily vanish, leaving Lowbrow a hollow, pathetic husk of its former promise.
The tattoos and push-up bras always stand out at these events. In truth, the bulk of spectators looked more like young, disenfranchised art students, typical of the vast majority of artists who grow up in our culture just wanting to draw, baffled by TAW’s demands that they study Lacan‘s knot theories and videotape their little brother beating off. This isn’t, finally, a conflict between artists or even between philosophies of art. It‘s a question of access. While Lowbrow’s deeper political challenges to TAW‘s crumbling infrastructure may soon be circumvented by assimilation, one thing is plain: As long as there is a pool of creative talent numbering in the tens of thousands, whose way of translating their understanding of the world into artifacts is excluded from the discussion of what is and is not Art, Lowbrow and Juxtapoz have nothing to worry about.
On Friday, November 8, a panel discussion featuring Robert Williams, Craig Stecyk, Greg Escalante, Jamie O’Shea, Georganne Deen and others will be held at Track 16. On Friday, November 15, the gallery will screen Sandow Birk, Sean Meredith and Paul Zaloom‘s mockumentary, In Smog and Thunder: The Great War of the Californias, followed by a discussion with some of the filmmakers. Both events begin at 8 p.m.; admission is $5. For reservations, call (310) 264-4678.
JUXTAPOZ EIGHTH-ANNIVERSARY ART SHOW | Track 16 Gallery, Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building C-1, Santa Monica | Through November 16