Lowbrow, or lowbrow art, describes an underground visual art movement that arose in the Los Angeles, California, area in the late 1970s. It is a populist art movement with its cultural roots in underground comix, punk music, tiki culture, and hot-rod cultures of the street. 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, New York City which was run by Jacaeber Kastor, La Luz de Jesus run by Billy Shire and 01 gallery in Hollywood, run by John Pochna. The movement steadily grew from its beginning, with hundreds of artists adopting this style. As the number of artists grew, so did the number of galleries showing Lowbrow; The arbiter Greg Escalante helped produce the first formal art gallery exhibition to take low brow art seriously at the Julie Rico Gallery in Santa Monica with the one-man show "Looney Virtues", in 1992 by artist Anthony Ausgang. The Bess Cutler Gallery also went on to show important artists and helped expand the kind of art that was classified as Lowbrow. 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 tiki, 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. As lowbrow develops, there may be a branching (as there was with previous art movements) into different strands and even whole new art movements.
In an article in the February 2006 issue of 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. "Lowbrow" was thus used by Williams in opposition to "highbrow." He said the name then stuck, even though he feels it is inappropriate. Williams refers to the movement as "cartoon-tainted abstract surrealism ." Lately, Williams has begun referring to his own work as "Conceptual Realism."
Lowbrow is also commonly referred to as pop surrealism. The term "pop surrealism" was coined by The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum for its 1998 exhibit of the same name. The exhibit featured work by over seventy artists, including Gregory Crewdson, Mariko Mori, Ashley Bickerton, Art Spiegelman, Tony Oursler, and Cindy Sherman, and was memorialized in the 1999 book of the same name. Reviewing the exhibition for ArtForum, Steven Henry Madoff wrote: "The mutant sensibility at work in this droll, smartly curated exhibition proposes the marriage of Surrealism's dream-laden fetish for the body eroticized and grotesque and Pop art's celebration of the shallower, corrosively bright world given over the packaged good." The New York Times said of the exhibit "at first, Surrealism and popular culture would seem to be oil and water. Surrealism mines dreams and the unconscious, while popular culture is concerned with surface and commonplaces. But in recent years they have been brought together in exhibitions concerned with proving that High and Low are related." Kirsten Anderson, who edited a second book called Pop Surrealism, considers lowbrow and pop surrealism to be related but distinct movements. However, Matt Dukes Jordan, author of Weirdo Deluxe, views the terms as interchangeable.
Museums, art critics, mainstream galleries, etc., have been uncertain as to the status of lowbrow in relation to the fine art world, and today 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. All these aspects of art were deeply disparaged in the art schools and by curators and critics throughout the 1980s and 90s.
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, Ray Caesar, Mark Ryden (from his 2007 'Tree Show' exhibition), Robert Williams, Ciou, Manuel Ocampo, Georganne Deen, the Italian Marco Rea 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 Thomas Hart Benton) 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, Greg Colson, Inka Essenhigh, Jim Shaw, John Currin, Mike Kelley, Nicola Verlato, Mark Bryan (artist) and the San Francisco-based Mission School, which includes Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Dan Plasma, Wolf in a Spacesuit.
There are several books which offer overview histories of lowbrow, including the following:
There are also books focusing on individual lowbrow artists, including Mark Ryden, Robert Williams, Joe Coleman, SHAG (Josh Agle), Anthony Ausgang, Niagara (artist), Stacy Lande, Todd Schorr, Camille Rose Garcia, Alex Pardee and Elizabeth McGrath.
Several films have been made to document the Lowbrow movement, including:
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