I've been thinking a lot about Rodney Dangerfield the last couple of days. Not that I was ever a big fan of the blustery, pop-eyed comedian, but his recent death at the age of 82 got me to thinking over his lengthy career and wondering if, underneath all the wink-wink, nudge-nudge, meathead appeal of his comedy beat the heart of a true artist.
It's the same thing with the kind of art coming to the SFCC Gallery next week. "Bad Ass Art and the Juxtapoz Aesthetic" celebrates the artistic merit of black velvet paintings, tiki gods, pin-up girls, hot rod art, even decoupage. While not all of those items are likely to be on display, their influence can be felt in what is on display: the darkly elegant tableaux of Mark Ryden, the Delft "disasterware" of Charles Krafft, the colorful futuristic/nostalgic lounge lairs of Shag. "Lowbrow art," as its practitioners proudly call it, is accessible, inexpensive, kitschy, even vulgar. Larry Reid, independent curator, writer and proponent of "lowbrow" has made a career out of it and as such is an invaluable resource on the history of the movement and its place is contemporary pop culture.
"This is a movement that has its roots in mid-century America. It is in many ways a reaction to the societal conformity of the 1950s and '60s while also being influenced by the popular culture of that era," says Reid. "It gained momentum because the fine art world became increasingly conceptual, particularly by the 1980s and early '90s. The vocabulary and imagery became dense and opaque. Art became stripped of its ability to communicate ideas. Which, to my way of thinking, is one of the primary elements of art, that it has that ability to communicate."
Reid describes the condescension of the art world at that time (particularly in New York) and how "lowbrow," like surfing, hot rodding and Tiki culture, began as a West Coast movement.
"The West Coast rebelled against what felt like the opaque, insider nature of the fine art world, and there were a number of artists who wanted to bring art back to the public," he says. "People like the legendary pin-striper Von Dutch, "Big Daddy" Ed Roth, Robert Williams -- these were the real founders of lowbrow."
Williams, in particular, went on to become one of the most outspoken and erudite voices of the movement. Along with Roth and Von Dutch, he was featured in the wildly popular "Kustum Kulture" exhibit that came to Seattle in 1993 after a successful run in Laguna Beach, Calif. Kustum Kulture tapped into both a new generation of artists as well as a broader community of artists, patrons and critics who didn't like the direction the fine art world was headed. In 1994, Williams began publishing Juxtapoz magazine, a then-quarterly showcase for this new edgy, populist kind of art.
"In founding Juxtapoz, Robert Williams really inspired this movement. Suddenly there was an arena for art like this. Galleries popped up, critics responded positively -- the impact was amazing."
All 16 artists in the show at SFCC have some connection to the now-bimonthly Juxtapoz, whether they represent the first wave like "Big Daddy" Ed Roth, whose "Rat Fink" character appealed to the rebellious collective subconscious of the early 1960s teenager, or they come from the younger generation of Joe Coleman, Shag and Camille Rose Garcia.
Many have co-opted and reinvented crafts and aesthetics that have largely passed into oblivion -- for instance, the decoupage of Lisa Petrucci and the bone china of Charles Krafft. The Juxtapoz aesthetic could be described as one part fine art, mixed with equal measures of hot rod flames, horror comics, R. Crumb-style caricatures, Jetsons cool and Yvonne de Carlo style.
"This work is marked by an almost immediate recognition; you usually know lowbrow when you see it," says Reid. "Although it's accessible, quaint and kitschy, there is also an underlying aspect of menace to a lot of it. But it's generally warmly received, perhaps because so much of the imagery is rendered in a cartoon fashion. It takes the edge off."
The subtle sexuality, danger and threat inherent in many a lowbrow piece raises an interesting question as to whether this movement is still considered "outsider" art or whether its common appeal has brought it into the mainstream.
"There is a dichotomy," Reid concedes. "Lowbrow is meant to be mainstream. It's meant to connect art with a greater public. Just as Pop Art came out of Abstract Expressionism as a reaction against a movement that not a lot of people felt like they could relate to, lowbrow wanted to bypass museums, galleries and fine art publications and go directly to the people. It's cyclical. At the same time, the imagery isn't necessarily pleasant or nice."
In fact, lowbrow's grittier aspects might be what's slowly earning it a grudging respect in the fine art world.
"Even highbrow art people are beginning to take this art seriously. I've seen the most condescending curators looking at this art, and even they can't help but smile at this work. It's meant to be a celebration of pop culture," says Reid. "But in saying that this art is accessible, I don't want to suggest that the artists themselves aren't sophisticated, because they are. In lowbrow, you have subtle and often not-so-subtle political commentary, social commentary and references to various art movements. It's educated work. But it's an inclusive movement, and that's where its strongest appeal lies."