Something remarkable is happening just beneath the surface of the art world.
Its makeup has been shifting — slightly and subtly at first, but with a recent
torrential surge that may have put it on the verge of a sea change. Rich new collectors
are buying up strange artworks from a host of until recently fringe-dwelling galleries,
and the guardians of high culture are being forced to sit up and take notice.
Lowbrow art — the loose mash-up of excluded visual culture ranging from tattoos,
underground comix and custom hot rods to slick post-graffiti street-art campaigns
and immaculately glazed pop-surrealist oil paintings — has emerged from its scrappy
underworld beginnings and is finally getting the respect it has always craved.
And Los Angeles seems to be at the center of the vortex. Consider these recent
LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions) — long a bastion of the
local European-style avant-garde and academic conceptualists — christened the
all-important September art season (and the tenure of new director Carol Stakenas)
with “White Dunk,” a show bankrolled by Lowbrow sugar daddy Nike and scenester
bible Juxtapoz magazine. The show featured 25 Japanese artists — heavy
on the animé and professional-design end of the spectrum — responding to an
all-white basketball sneaker.
Copro Nason — which began in the mid-’90s as a modest Lowbrow printmaking
studio with archival editions of Big Daddy Roth’s and Robert Williams’ previously
published work — had, by the turn of the millennium, become one of the international
upper echelon of first-run Lowbrow galleries. Recently relocated from its secret
party-house in the shadow the 10-405 interchange to high-profile digs at blue
chip central — Bergamot Station — it’s poised for upscale market penetration.
Visionary fuck-up Daniel Johnston’s recent no-show only made it more legitimate.
Billy Shire, founder and owner of the internationally renowned Lowbrow
gallery La Luz de Jesus (and trend-setting slacker tchotchke palaces Wacko
and the Soap Plant — see accompanying story) elbowed himself a plush new
showroom in the middle of the art-world real estate rush to Culver City, opening
Billy Shire Fine Arts in April on essentially equal footing with Blum & Poe
and Suzanne Vielmetter galleries.
Museum spaces have begun programming Lowbrow in earnest: Spooky meat ’n’ Christina
Ricci painter Mark Ryden set attendance records with his “Wondertoonel” retrospective
at the Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA) last spring; Robert Williams
(who invented the term “Lowbrow Art” to describe his own gutter surrealist paintings)
graced the Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis — L.A.’s oldest art school — with a greatest-and-latest-hits
package, as well as teaching an instantly sold-out master class; other institutional
endorsements have included the skateboard/graffiti omnibus show “Beautiful Losers”
at the Orange County Museum, Ruby Osorio at Laguna Art Museum opening next weekend,
and practically the whole curatorial program for the Grand Central Art Station
at Cal State Fullerton (the Paris of Orange County), including its current show
by Camille Rose Garcia — who also has a show opening at La Brea gallery-row
infiltrator Merry Karnowski this Saturday night.
Rose Garcia's “Plan:B”
opens at Merry Karnowsky
Gallery on Saturday, October 29.
Courtesy of Merry Karnowsky Gallery
Alarming stuff to be sure, but these high-profile discontinuities in art-world
protocol are just the tip of the iceberg. Little galleries are springing up
everywhere, devoted to a kind of dark, cartoonish pictorialism that would have
been utterly disdained only a few years ago. Caryn Coleman’s sixspace gallery
— which also recently made the jump to Culver City from its downtown-adjacent
venue — doesn’t seem to draw any distinction between high- and lowbrow, exhibiting
art-school peintures like Carrie Marill and Sarah Cromarty in the same breath
as hot-rod graphic designer COOP and Dogtown chronicler Glen Friedman. Other
start-ups, like La-La Land in Hollywood, have taken the unique mass-marketing
strategies of the Lowbrow world to new plateaus, as in their recent exhibit
of customized lunch boxes by tiki-meister SHAG, cartoonist Gary Baseman, jazzy
retro illustrator Tim Biskup and 47 other Lowbrow stalwarts. The five most popular
will be produced in a signed and numbered limited edition of 50, which will
undoubtedly sell out — probably before they ever leave the fabricator’s shop.
Meanwhile, mainstream galleries and museums are working hard to play catch-up.
Eighties Robertson Boulevard dealer Earl McGrath boldly reinvented his gallery
(alongside his New York space) as a flagship of unapologetic blue-chip Lowbrow,
with impeccably mounted exhibits by Ryden, SHAG, Eric White and other top-tier
picture-makers. Manga- and animé-saturated Japanese pop artists like Takashi
Murakami and Yoshimoto Nara are Lowbrow by any other name, though their championing
by the likes of Paul Schimmel at MOCA and Japan-friendly Blum & Poe (and the
plausible deniability of cultural exoticism as an excuse for their bad taste)
have put them in the big leagues in terms of critical acceptability and record-setting
auction price tags.
The designer graffiti crowd has fared almost as well, with NYC Alleged gallerist
Aaron Rose bringing his operations home to the Southland, and a gradual but
wide-scale acceptance of his stable of artists (Barry “Twist” McGee, Chris Johanson,
Phil “Wite-Out” Frost, et al.) by the mainstream art world, including shows
at Mid-Wilshire mainstays Roberts & Tilton, the aforementioned OCMA survey,
several Hammer projects and a recent posthumous retrospective for Margaret Kilgallen
at CalArts’ Disney Hall REDCAT space.
Ryden, Snow White (1997)
Courtesy Pasadena Museum of
Some of Lowbrow’s newfound respectability comes from being associated
with these hip art-world trends. “I seemed to notice a sudden fanatical following
from what must be called the beautiful-losers movement,” says Greg Escalante
(the “Joe Copro” of Copro Nason and “curator” of Juxtapoz) about the
sudden surge of Lowbrow activity. “A few power collectors of this art seemed
to be helping as well. And I don’t think it hurts that Juxtapoz has been
around 11 years and is close to eclipsing Art News as the number-one
Lowbrow’s success has influenced the mainstream art world in subtler ways as
well, resulting in a generation of young art-school-trained artists producing
work that is often indistinguishable from that of their Lowbrow counterparts.
Bergamot’s Richard Heller Gallery has become the premier outlet for the school
of Marcel Dzama — quirky, highly personal cartoons that have emerged as an international
subgenre in the last five years or so, often with the same taboo-treading sex
and violence, as well as an obvious affection for retro styles of design and
Illustration is a key word in this saga. Much of the work that winds
up in Lowbrow showcases is the same kind of visual art — and often the very
same art — that appears in the pages of ephemeral publications like the Weekly.
Shepard Fairey and Winston Smith, both of whom have graced our cover (among
many other graphic-design assignments), are also stars of the Lowbrow cosmos.
Gary Baseman had been plugging away as an illustrator for years before he suddenly
became a hot ticket with shows at major Lowbrow venues around the globe (including
a project room at the PMCA closing this weekend). Todd Schorr, whose seething
fever-dream visions of mutant trademark mascots and sideshow freaks are rendered
in unbelievable old-master technique (but using acrylic paints!), actually quit
a successful Manhattan illustration gig that included covers for Time
in order to follow in the footsteps of Robert Williams. Mark Ryden attended
the only major local school that actually encourages the Lowbrow aesthetic —
Pasadena’s Art Center. But it was the illustration program.
This raises a couple of the many unspoken melodramas underlying Lowbrow and
its discontents. Illustrators, much like architects, are often visually gifted
persons who could have been players in the mainstream art world, but for whatever
mixture of socioeconomic pressures — family expectations, financial obligations,
or just not wanting to shell out 30 grand to be told what you’re doing is wrong
and then having to work as a gallery lackey for the rest of your life to pay
off your student loans — decided to forgo the cultural cachet and complex protocols
of capital-A Art and peddle their skills directly to the mass-media marketplace.
In spite of its primary function of producing luxury conversation pieces for
the wealthy, the art world still affects a surface disdain for commerce. Most
illustrators — and most of the Lowbrow world — are unabashed capitalists, placing
their trust in the marketplace as the only fair arbiter of aesthetic quality.
in the Forest (2005)
Courtesy La Luz de Jesus
Salvador Dalí, a pivotal figure to most Lowbrow artists, became a pariah
in the politically charged art world of the mid-20th century by refusing to
go along with the Surrealists’ (that is to say André Breton’s) strict allegiance
to the Communist Party line. Everybody knows how well Dalí did for himself by
embracing the marketplace. Yet while most of the art world eventually lost faith
in the Soviet Union, the stigma attached to Dalí and his supposedly reactionary
brand of almost photographic illustrative Surrealism remains in place to this
day. Ironically, the Nazi-era influx of Surrealists and other European progressive/modernist
exiles into American cultural centers derailed the highly illustrative art traditions
of Regionalism and the Ashcan school, and the legitimacy of accomplished figurative
masters like Edward Hopper, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton — whose work disrupted
the alienating class elitism of the art establishment by appealing to the sensibilities
of the average American.
In this sense, Lowbrow can be said to have a legitimate claim to the true lineage
of modern American art. By reconnecting with pictorialist and figurative traditions
despised as kitsch by the art-critical school of Clement Greenberg, opening
their visual vocabulary to the most unironically inclusive array of pop-cultural
iconography, and embracing the marketplace potentials of Generation eBay, Lowbrow
has managed to create what the art world never has — a mass consumer base for
art. And while a lot of this consumption is directed at low-ticket Zippo lighters,
coffee-table books, and the fancy dollies — er, limited-edition urban vinyl
collectibles, I mean — found in outlets like Giant Robot and Chinatown’s Munky
King, the demand for original paintings and fine-art prints seems to be growing
“It isn’t a question of the mainstream art world accepting us,” comments one
native L.A. graffiti artist and art-school dropout. “It’s a question of them
getting out of the way. People aren’t interested in the phony snob appeal of
owning an abstract splatter painting or a pile of bricks anymore. They want
something they want to look at and live with. Something with humor, sex and
some technique — something you couldn’t hire any guy in the Home Depot parking
lot to do for 20 bucks!”
But as Lowbrow grows more and more inclusive — Unibrow — and financially successful,
the credibility of its defining characteristic as rebellious underdog begins
to stretch thin. “When we started Juxtapoz, we wanted a place for the
outlaw art that wasn’t being seen anywhere,” says Robert Williams, “but after
three or four years we ran out. There isn’t any more outlaw art. All this tiki
and big-eye crap is just a bunch of illustrators looking for a new place for
their stuff because they lost their jobs to computers.”
“They’re rebelling against some pop-culture idea about art from the 1950s,”
adds one bitter art-world insider. “They make up their identity in opposition
to something that was a parody in the first place, and they disregard a half-century
of art history that has come since. It’s the art-world equivalent of a thousand-dollar
black leather jacket. Its no wonder Nike sponsors them.”
And not Philip Morris or Charles Saatchi? The truth is that the moral posturing
and mercantile machinations of the mainstream art world have never been much
different from Lowbrow’s. The mainstream has just been hindered by a false sense
of commercial modesty. And the artists who are truly inspired to stack bricks
or mold thesaurus entries out of dryer lint won’t be dissuaded if their work
is no longer sold, collected or praised by critics. A little time served as
the outsider underdog seems to do wonders for the health.
Something remarkable is happening just beneath the surface of the art world.