by Doug Harvey
January 09, 2002
While the squabbling factions of the academic/gallery/museum/critical nexus known as "The Art World" argue about whos on top this week, an entire spectrum of parallel systems of production and distribution is operating outside TAW's rapidly eroding authority.
Whole subcultures devoted to folk and outsider art, landscape painting, public art commissions, "crafts," nature photography, and cowboy art thrive in spite of the sometimes open derision of the entrenched arbiters of "historically significant" art practice.
The most ornery of these alternate realities is the globally widespread movement often called "Lowbrow," whose roots go back to California custom-car and surfing culture, particularly the cartoonish grotesqueries of the late hot-rod surrealist Ed "Big Daddy" Roth.
Through the direct lineage of Roth protege and original ZAP comics collaborator Robert Williams, Lowbrow has gone from being a poor cousin of comic-book collecting to an international movement with its own manifesto-riddled journal - Juxtapoz, now entering its eighth year of publication. Williams founded and steers the magazine, and for the cornerstone of a movement with such an us-vs.-them mentality, it's been surprisingly inclusive - riling the hardcore hot-rod/girlie-mag purists with articles on graffiti, performance, design and all manner of figurative painting. (Figurative being the operative word.)
Many arguments that rage on the fringes of TAW are central to Lowbrow: most conspicuously the polarization of the figurative versus the . . . well, the non-figurative. People want to look at pictures of people doing stuff. While there is a strong case for the legitimacy of the public's hard-wired physical-identification and narrative preferences over the inherent limitations of formalism (and its discontents), the most convincing argument remains the bottom line. The Laguna Art Museum's current militantly figurative exhibition, "Representing L.A.: Pictorial Currents in Southern California Art," has been one of its most popular ever. As complex and ironic as Komar and Melamid's "People's Choice" project (a poll of a statistically representative sampling of the citizens of various nations to determine - then produce - the most wanted and most unwanted paintings for each demographic) was, the percentages were overwhelmingly in favor of figuration. Most people don't think about abstract art, ever. Most of those who do, prefer pictures of people doing stuff, and will pay cash money for it.
Not only do Lowbrow shows seem to sell out faster and more frequently than their TAW equivalents, but Lowbrow artists routinely move lithographs in quantities and at prices unthinkable to most printmakers in TAW. They often get illustration gigs based on their signature styles, and there is an entire industry imprinting their imagery onto T-shirts, purses, Zippo lighters, appointment books, calendars, jewelry, light fixtures, furniture, dishware, etc. Last weekend saw the L.A.-area openings of two shows from probably the two hottest Lowbrow commodities at the moment - hi-modern cartoon mythologist SHAG at La Luz de Jesus Gallery on Hollywood Boulevard near Vermont Avenue, and spooky, meticulous cradle-robber Mark Ryden at Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center (GCAC) in Santa Ana.
SHAG is an artist who depicts a tart, timeless geometric idyll in a continuum of frames that resemble hand-painted animation cels from a lost Saturday-morning spinoff of 1967's Casino Royale, or stained-glass windows from the Temple of Secular Hedonistic Cool. Populated by a constantly rotating cast of pop-culture mythological characters (beatniks, Shriners, International Men and Women of Mystery, and a bestiary of literal lounge lizards and other swingin' animal spirits), SHAG's bachelor pads, cocktail lounges and ski chalets continue to resonate in spite of the Cocktail Nation's long-expired 15 minutes of mainstream currency. Just search eBay for SHAG. The artist formerly known as JoSH AGle has taken marketing to a new level, astutely citing Keith Harings giddy 80s exercises in branding as a precedent. He still finds time to paint, and his new show, "Bottomless Cocktail," consists of more than a dozen new scenes, most of which give conspicuous (though uncompensated) product placement to name-brand liquors. Most recently, SHAG designed a SHAG-themed cocktail lounge called Venus for the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino in Las Vegas.
If SHAG scores highest in terms of proliferation, the category of "most dollars per square inch" is dominated by Mark Ryden, whose current show in Orange County is a reprise of his recent New York solo debut, titled "Bunnies and Bees." Although New York Times critic Grace Glueck sniffed that Ryden was nothing but a "relentless kitsch-meister," the show was an enormous popular and financial success. Ryden's much-imitated style resembles the fever dreams of a bedridden 7-year-old rendered in an exquisitely muted palette of painstakingly applied oil paints. Pastel bunnies, dollies, bees, monkeys, elephants and baby deer cohabit with pasty centipedes, fetuses, mutant Abe Lincolns, mandrake roots, slabs of meat and naked, big-eyed prepubescents. The elaborate frames, often hand-carved to Rydens specifications, add to the paintings' stately Victorian theatricality. Dripping with creepy nostalgia and enough oedipal content to send both Mary Kelly and Mike Kelley scurrying, the imagery compounds its psychological potency with the fetishistic aura of the object itself and its laborious, perfectionist, handmade realization. And the works go like hotcakes.
Lowbrow has a uniquely organic system for the transmission of tradition: Artists who hit the big time, like Ryden, spawn scores of imitators, who are often able to stake a claim to their own corner of the Lowbrow world. In conjunction with "Bunnies and Bees," GCAC will display more than 250 tributes to Ryden's influence (out of twice that many sent in response to a call for submissions in Juxtapoz) in a show called "The Meat Annex: The Public's Response to Meat and Mark Ryden," opening February 2.
One of the dark secrets of The Art World is that a majority of art students beginning their professional training, when asked who their favorite contemporary artists are, will name one Lowbrow practitioner or another. A great deal of energy is invested in disabusing them of such notions, and has been since at least as far back as Robert Williams' school days. If most of the suckers shelling out 50 grand for an MFA knew what their income bracket would be five years down the road, they might retain some of the obstinacy of their early bad taste. But TAW, worn down by unrelenting generations of incorrectness and inspired perhaps by the vigorous fiscal well-being of Lowbrow, has started to wise up. After anointing a generation of retro illustrational painters (Elizabeth Peyton, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage et al.) as the next big thing, the museums are currently embracing the work of cartoonish narrativists like Barry McGee, his late wife Margaret Kilgallen and their Bay Area accomplices.
The work is indistinguishable from Lowbrow, and TAW is going to have to come up with even more extravagant and improbable rationalizations for drawing their distinctions, or finally give up and let these disreputable upstarts into the clubhouse. Otherwise, the way things are going, the outsiders might soon be the ones holding the keys.