Lowbrow

hot rod by robert williams

Lowbrow describes an underground visual art movement that arose in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Lowbrow is a widespread populist art movement with origins in the underground comix world, punk music, hot-rod street culture, and other subcultures. It is also often known by the name pop surrealism. Lowbrow art often has a sense of humor – sometimes the humor is gleeful, sometimes impish, and sometimes it is a sarcastic comment.

Some of the first artists to create what came to be known as lowbrow art were underground cartoonists like Robert Williams and Gary Panter. Early shows were in alternative galleries in New York and Los Angeles such as Psychedelic Solutions Gallery in Greenwich Village, La Luz de Jesus, and 01 gallery. The lowbrow magazine Juxtapoz by Robert Williams, first published in 1994, has been a mainstay of writing on lowbrow art and has helped direct and grow the movement.

Writers have noted that there are now distinctions to be drawn between how lowbrow manifests itself in different regions and places. Some see a distinct U.S. ‘west coast’ lowbrow style, which is more heavily influenced by underground comix and hot rod car-culture than elsewhere. As the lowbrow style has spread around the world, it has been intermingled with the tendencies in the visual arts of those places in which it has established itself.

In his magazine Juxtapoz, Robert Williams took credit for originating the term ‘lowbrow art.’ He stated that in 1979 Gilbert Shelton of the publisher Rip-Off Press decided to produce a book featuring Willams’ paintings. Williams said he decided to give the book the self-deprecating title, ‘The Lowbrow Art of Robt. Williams,’ since no authorized art institution would recognize his type of art.

Museums and art critics have been uncertain as to the status of lowbrow in relation to the fine art world, and to date it has been largely excluded – although this has not stopped some collectors from buying the works. Some art critics doubt that lowbrow is a ‘legitimate’ art movement, and there is thus very little scholarly critical writing about it.

The standard argument of critics is that critical writing arises naturally from within an art movement first, and then a wider circle of critics draws upon this writing to inform their own criticism. This apparent absence of internal critical writing may be because many lowbrow artists began their careers in fields not normally considered fine art, such as illustration, tattooing and comic books. Many lowbrow artists are self-taught, which further alienates them from the world of museum curators and art schools.

Many in the art world have deeper difficulties with lowbrow’s figurative focus, its cultivation of narrative, and its strong valuing of technical skill. However, a number of artists who started their careers by showing in lowbrow galleries have gone on to show their work primarily in mainstream fine art galleries. Joe Coleman, Mark Ryden, Ciou, Manuel Ocampo, Georganne Deen, and the Clayton Brothers are examples.

Some origins of lowbrow’s approach can be traced to art movements of the early 20th century, specifically the works of the Dadaists and the leading proponents of the American Regionalism movement (artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Thomas Hart Benton, respectively) in which such art movements have questioned the distinctions between high and low art, fine art and folk art, and popular culture and high-art culture.

In some sense lowbrow art is about exploring and critiquing those distinctions, and it thus shares similarities with the pop art of the 1960s and early 70s. One can also note that just as the lowbrow artists play in the blurred (or perhaps evaporated) boundaries between high and low culture, other more ‘mainstream’ contemporary artists use artistic strategies similar to those employed by lowbrow artists. Examples include: Lisa Yuskavage, Kenny Scharf, Takashi Murakami, Inka Essenhigh, Jim Shaw, John Currin.

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One Comment to “Lowbrow”

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