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The blistered raw underbelly of punk, hot rod culture, and the fantastical yet gritty world of Los Angeles 'comix' bled street artists impregnated with a volatile, creative vein. With a slow outbreak in the 1950's with Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, creator of Rat Fink, it wasn't until the 70's when Lowbrow became the unapologetic form that rebelled with full force against the restrictive high-art world. Despite the unfaltering adoration of its artists, the young movement had a long, hard road to endure before any sliver of serious recognition. Almost sixty years later, Lowbrow is not merely the unruly, younger sibling awkwardly following on the heels of more prestigious movements past, but a critical ingredient itself. In fact, it informs itself with such speed that it has mutated into an overgrown beast of a genre, suffering from a severe identity crisis. With a little surgery and internal rearranging, Lowbrow can join the other heavy hitters of contemporary art. 


Early shows in alternative spaces such as: Psychedelic Solutions Gallery, La Luz de Jesus, and Zero One Gallery organized shows for such founding artists as Robert Williams and Gary Panter. In 1979, Gilbert Shelton of Rip-Off Press published a book of Williams' work. Imagery of psychedelic, super cartoons lined its pages. Williams' appropriately decided on the self-deprecating title, The Low Brow Art of Robt. Williams, since no authorized art institution would recognize this style of art. Similar to early Dada, Surrealism, Fauvism, among many others including Impressionism which endured years of ridicule before it was regarded with any level of serious legitimacy. Backlash stemmed from the difficulties with the movement's figurative focus, lack of narrative development, and questioned technical ability.  During these pubescent stages, very little internal critique took place. Many artists who adopted the Lowbrow moniker were self-taught, and often hailed from careers in illustration, tattooing, and the comic book industry. This absence of scholarly debate stifled growth from within for years.


The mid-century reaction bore a prejudice that lie deeper, Williams explains in the book, Dumbing Down to DaVinci, "I'm not issuing blame and retribution, but starting at the end of the Second World War, the international and American fine arts communities have intentionally striven to move the graphic and sculptural arts into the province of total non-objective abstraction and semi-abstract expression, and this backed up years later with minimalism and conceptual theory. This means essentially that for fifty years the world's de facto fine art power brokers have completely eliminated representational painting, drawing, and sculpture from the whole fine art sphere, with a few rare exceptions such as kitsch pop art. This is all well and good for the high art society cognoscenti, except for two problems: To begin with, representational art as a voice and language dates back to early visual communications right up to the middle of the twentieth century when, for some unknown reason, it was curtailed. This crucial form of graphic expression will inevitably find other forms of social contact, and will eventually eclipse any art mode that suppresses it." 


In 1994, Williams went on to found Juxtapoz Magazine, a soap box for the movement. Juxatpoz is now regarded as one of the primary sources of related conversation. The publication encourages the ever-needed critique and also serves as a platform for artist exposure; completely circumventing the almighty art world opinion. A growing number of new artists and galleries were bracing the backbone initiative to steadily cultivate the movement. Jon Bienart, modern advocate and founder of Beinart International Surreal Art Collective, says in his book, Metamorphosis II, "The contemporary art world's preoccupation with breaking boundaries has led to a dismissive attitude towards such figurative art. In an all-consuming search for something new, abstract, and conceptual art has overshadowed the timeless, universal tradition. Fortunately for figurative artists, however, the practice of image-making is so ingrained and revered in Western culture that nothing could blunt the passion of its practitioners. A growing counter culture of representational artists is challenging fashionable notions of art and claiming a new space in public galleries, museums, and art books..."


After years of turmoil the higher powers began noticing, from smaller yet faithful galleries such as New York's Fuse Gallery exhibiting such prolific artists as: Jack Walls, GWAR, and Naoto Hattori to mainstream institutions like Boston Institute of Contemporary Art and London's Tate Modern. Jeffery Deitch owner of Deitch Project notes, "Now there are a number of younger curators who've followed these artists when they were working on the streets and who are now in positions to do something", from the 2008 Artnews article, 'Two Way Street'.  An increasing acceptance and participation has transformed Lowbrow from a minority to an all-encompassing umbrella term, where a wide variety of artists are thrown without further sanctioning. Samantha Levin, artist and co-founder of the curatorial project Anagnorisis states, "Many of the artists placed under the Lowbrow umbrella don't seem visually to fit under it easily, even though they show in Lowbrow galleries. Subsequently, because those galleries have been successfully promoting their artwork, the title has become kind of tough to shake." and continues, " Some, I'm sure, could easily retain the description, such as Audrey Kawasaki, Gary Baseman or even Takashi Murakami, amongst many others whose thoughtful work contains cartoonish or pop elements. Others, such as Laurie Lipton, Carrie Ann Baade, or Anthony Pontius do not fit so easily, and as their careers flourish, their work could easily wind up falling under alternative descriptions that better fit their individual and unique aesthetics". 


A new wave of creatives all pulling from different wells of inspiration, mixing tradition with improved technique, and utilizing technology to bridge international communities encourages collaboration over competition. This diversification which has led to the reinvention of an over-exhausted vernacular. The new coffee table book, in all it's color-saturated glory, The Upset: Young Contemporary Art published by Gestalten, elects eight classifications:  'Lowbrow', 'Gothic', 'Realism', 'Illustration', 'Character', 'Urban Art', 'Pattern', and 'Expressionism' successfully clarifying the overpopulated monicker. This is one large step to untangling a seemingly untouched lump of contemporary art. The Upset, along with future initiatives to separate and describe artists will enable a more informed understanding of emerging artwork. Thus, solidifying another shred of proof that this genre has grown to be an always cutting yet mature and thoughtful movement.


Although not completely rewritten, Lowbrow has finally shed it's ill-fitting skin of the past. The inherent sarcasm of it's founding fathers hasn't changed, but continues to establish generations who question convention. A new vocabulary, otherwise known as a more educated voice, can organically transpire eluding burden of outdated art "law". A super-breed subculture, once just a reaction to the art world, pushes past shallow rebellion to demolish the prejudice of high, low, better, and worse. Whatever the title may be, the mission is here to stay.


 


 

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Gary Panter
Robert Williams

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