FROM COMICS, CARTOONS, HORROR FLICKS and CAMARADERIE with STREET SENSIBILITIES…
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

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Tee Shirt Wall installation by Harv greets visitors to Empire 7 Studios

Carlos de Araujo and Jennifer Ahn have dedicated their Japan-Town gallery to artists with their roots in San Jose. Their current show is a collaborative of artists with a street aesthetic, part of the larger profile of Low Brow, that grew out of their friendship with one of these local artists, Opski. Guys with single names like Tighe, Joep and Harv, along with Opski and Ken Davis, opened the show with walls packed with tee shirts for sale, “live screen printing”, dozens of paintings, drawings, relief constructions, and a long collaborative wall mural. The atmosphere is promoted as a scene where friends and would-be friends can come and hang out. It‚Äôs sort of an underground event, a young and select “in” crowd that understands and is energized by the imagery gathers, buys tee shirts and supports the artists, musicians and the gallery. In the context of ongoing exhibitions at Anno Domini and a stir created by SJMA’s current exhibition of Todd Schorr, I approached ODMD & the Get Caughts: For The First Time Ever Again at Empire 7 Studios with a determined curiosity. The public acceptance of and enthusiasm for Low Brow art grows, and my desire to understand and undertake something of a definition grows, as well. I am a bit too old to identify with all of it. Yet, a long conversation with Ahn fueled my thoughts and observations on this broad category of work.

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A wall mural, (detail), running the full length of the Empire 7 Studios Gallery sports contributions from all artists in the show.

In the Empire 7 Studios exhibition, camaraderie, and a non-judgmental celebration of like-minded anti-establishmentarianism (both toward the art world and the larger social structure) prevail. Groups with monikers, and individual artists work cooperatively in the gallery context to activate the space with a truly Postmodern assault of mixed styles, color, aggressive images and messages. There is some resemblance to a highway underpass that has the patina of years of graffiti, (and therein, the experience of the Street), but for the framed works, a brilliance of fresh color and a clearer organization of space. The lack of preciousness and the willingness to lose artwork that has been temporarily painted on gallery walls parallels the probability of temporality in painting something on a public surface. Propitiously, it may lack the thrill of tempting fate and risking arrest.

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Ken Davis plays with Ben Davis and a favorite icon, the skull.

The San Jose Museum of Art has featured the cartoon fantasies of Camille Rose Garcia and the “American Surreal” confabulations of Todd Schorr, revealing both to be partially inspired by the animation industry. In Low Brow there is often an unapologetic baroque ornamentation of the surfaces of paper, canvas, chunks of wood and walls — featuring offshoots of characters out of animation, individual styles in cartooning, dripping blood, distorted and ugly faces out of horror movies, slogans, tags and nicknames in all sorts of graphics, self-obsessions, and a compulsive horror vacui. Sometimes it is angry, sometimes depressed and crying for help, sometimes just defiant — full of attitude that shouts “No one is meaner than me!”

A democratic inclusiveness permits some clumsiness in the visual arts of the street. Yet in the best instances the artists are remarkably skilled. A mix of self-taught artists work alongside formally educated artists like Opski and Todd Schorr. Prolific Low Brow artists with distinct styles do not appear averse to showing solo in the gallery context, but somewhere there seems to be a separation between what happens in the street politic and the point where individual careers launch into the art world.

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Joep’s Have A Nice Day is a deadpan repetition of an everyday banality not unlike a Warhol Soup Can.

Certain threads that run through art history into Low Brow have been manifest in high art since the grotesque social critique of Francisco Goya and the burlesque of sin by Hieronymus Bosch. The political cartoons of Daumier or Guadalupe Posada in the 19th Century, began as populist expressions of outrage over government and social folly, but later were completely embraced by art history. Kathe Kollowitz, witnessing poverty, cold-blooded exploitation of the poor, and two world wars in the 20th C., made some of her most potent observations in visions of death — the skull, of course, is a popular, if clich√©, icon of popular culture and Low Brow.

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A close inspection of his small images reveals that Tighe plays shamelessly with the female as a sex object.

Postmodernism and the high art world has indeed embraced populist sources from murals to marketing messages, cartooning, graphics, hateful web sites and even porn. Like the series of Get Caught paintings in Tighe’s wall, bad boys such as Peter Saul, Jim Nutt and David Salle have asserted the right to a misogynistic message, albeit sometimes tongue-in-cheek. Tighe’s series of almost-identical collages of tiny porn postures labeled Get Caught are interesting for their similarity to Lewis de Soto’s painting of the temptations of the Buddha, seen recently at the SJICA. Politically incorrect content of all kinds, such the voyeuristic paintings of Julian Freud and Eric Fischel, or the irreverent anthropological observations of the de la Torre brothers, has found a welcoming home in Postmodernism. Even some of the favored techniques of street aesthetics — appropriation, the spray can, screenprinting, and collage/montage of layers of unrelated imagery — were legitimized at the beginnings of postmodernism. (I myself have loved and employed in my own work many of these artistic privileges born in the middle of the 20th Century of art history .)

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Opski employs many styles in the playful development of a series characters.

If low brow, kitch, ugly images and aggressive art are not exactly new, still there is something about its sources in the street that feels different here. A good deal of the 20th Century saw artists protesting the establishment of the pristine white-walled gallery and museum as an arbiter of taste and acceptance. Walls, patronage, single media or any previously established criteria would not control artists — and certainly, contemporary Low Brow celebrates such values as rebelliousness and freedom. But beyond this there is something of this generation of urbanization that colors all this body of work. If you’re born in the City today, you may be a renter all your life. Your knowledge of the visual arts may not come from school or nearby museums that you never have visited, but rather from advertising, film and comics or cartooning. You and everyone you know may live under the oppressive sense that the laws of economics, politics and privilege confine you to your place, and forever proscribe your life. As in most youthful forays into to the world, you form your family and posse of friends in whatever way presents itself. It is about defying the odds against having territory of your own, having some space to behave with adolescent exuberance and foolishness, moving upward, escaping the cycle of being nickel-and-dimed to death and always being a starving student, escaping or changing an environment of concrete, and insisting that you are not afraid. You will be seen (heard), whether or not you have prepared a coherent statement.

I wonder if this is simply another turn in that course of Postmodernism that demands greater inclusiveness? Is there a link to increasingly green statements and processes by 21st Century artists who indict the unnatural and polluted character of urban life? Does it represent a cry that voters seemed to sense in the last presidential election? As more galleries, museums embrace artists with a street aesthetic, is it co-opted into the mainstream and academe? Does it lose its potency as that happens? I want to find a message or content within the Low Brow genre, but perhaps there is no coherent single statement that comes from this movement, and its expression of attitude is the very point.

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The collaborative wall mural at Emire 7 Studios (detail) screams “attitude” and youthful exuberance.

My conversation with Jennifer Ahn was informative in that I saw a mostly positive energy and support for others within this youthful movement. There is humor. In spite of some of the darker elements, it felt like an up-beat celebration of life. I stopped trying to read individual statements or content into the work of any one artist. Camille Rose Garcia and some other artists, seen recently in Anno Domini, whose work is obsessive self-portraiture might be said to infuse their work with content, with the character of life on the street, through their diaristic interpretations of self, their dreams. Simulacra pervades reality. There are references to escape through fantasy, superficiality, and in some, confessions of sadness, damaged and unnatural lives. I think I can extend that to most of the references to media influence and imagery in ODMD and the Get Caughts as well. Yes, it’s about life on the urban streets and how we survive.

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