Pictures From the Lowbrow Revolution. Or, how outlaw art went mainstream
by Doug Harvey
October. 28 - November 3, 2005
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 scenarios:
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, 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 Karnowsky this Saturday night.
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.
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 art magazine."
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.
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.
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 exponentially.
"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 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.