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.
Most lowbrow artworks are paintings, but there are also toys, digital art, and sculpture.
The lowbrow is reappropriating codes from popular media such as comics, advertising, graffiti, cartoon and anything that is not considered part of the world of classical “fine arts”. It is considered part of the “surrealist pop”.
The lowbrow art is often humorous, sometimes joyful, sometimes mischievous, sometimes sarcastically.
Most lowbrow works are paintings, but they can also use other media or techniques: toys, digital art, sculpture.
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.
Origin of the term “lowbrow art”
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 or pop surrealism
The Lowbrow is also known as pop surrealism. ‘Kirsten Anderson, who edited the book Pop Surrealism, considers Lowbrow and pop surrealism related, but as distinct movements. However, Matt Dukes Jordan, author of Weirdo Deluxe, believes that the terms are interchangeable.
Lowbrow vs. fine arts
Museums, art critics, mainstream galleries, etc., have been firm about the status of Lowbrow in the world of fine arts., and to date, most have excluded it, which has not prevented some collectors from buying works. Some art critics doubt that the Lowbrow is a “legitimate” artistic movement, so there is very little academic criticism about it. The critics’ most common argument is that critical writings emerge naturally from within an artistic movement in the first place, and then a wider circle of critics directs their attention to this set of writings to give their own critique. This apparent absence of internal criticism could be due to the fact that many Lowbrow artists began their careers in fields that are not normally considered within the fine arts, such as illustration, tattoo and comic books.. Several Lowbrow artists are self-taught, which takes them further away from the world of curators of museums and art schools.
Several people in the art world have deep difficulties with respect to the figurative approach of Lowbrow, its cultivation of narrative, and its great appreciation of technical skills. Art schools and curators and critics profoundly underestimated these aspects during the 1980s and 1990s.
However, some artists who began their careers exhibiting in Lowbrow galleries have gone on to exhibit their work mainly in galleries of fine arts belonging to the accepted current. Joe Coleman, Mark Ryden (from his 2007 2007 exhibition ‘Tree Show’ ), Robert Williams, Manuel Ocampo, Georganne Deen, and the Clayton brothers are some examples.
Echoes of the Lowbrow approach can be found in the history of twentieth-century art, beginning with the work of the dadaists and leading exponents of the American regionalist movement (artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Thomas Hart Benton), movements that have questioned the distinctions between art high and low, fine and popular art, and finally between popular culture and refined art culture. In a certain sense, Lowbrow art consists in exploring and criticizing those distinctions, and that is why it shares similarities with pop artfrom the 1960s and early 70s. It is also possible to notice that just as Lowbrow artists move within the fuzzy boundaries between high culture and low culture, there are other contemporary artists of the “mainstream” who use artistic strategies similar to those employed by Lowbrow artists. Examples include Lisa Yuskavage, Kelly D. Williams, Kenny Scharf, Takashi Murakami, Jim Shaw, John Currin, Mike Kelley, and the Mission School of San Francisco (which includes Barry McGee) or Margaret Kilgallen.
Lowbrow art in Italy
Among the first galleries that began to deal with Lowbrow art in Italy was the Bolognese Mondo Bizzarro Gallery by Alessandro Papa and Gloria Bazocchi, who began his activity as an underground bookstore in 1995, and then turned into one of the more active galleries importing American artists related to this movement. In September 2004 the gallery moved to Rome, near the MACRO. Many are the notable names brought for the first time by them in Italy, and among these are Mark Ryden, Ray Caesar, Marion Peck, Audrey Kawasaki, Amy Sol,Camille Rose Garcìa, Todd Schorr Another important gallery is the Roman Dorothy Circus Gallery directed by Alexandra Mazzanti. In 2010, at the Carandente Museum in Spoleto, Alexandra Mazzanti curates one of the most comprehensive Italian exhibitions on this movement, entitled Pop Surrealism: What a WonderFool world, bringing together most of the American and European artists. Two Italians in the exhibition: Nicoletta Ceccoli and Niba. In July 2012 Alexandra Mazzanti together with Alessandro Icardi curated the Pop Surrealism – Stay Foolish exhibition at theCasa del Conte Verde Museum of Turin.
In 2016 in Rome the Micro Arti Visive space presents the work of Emma Anticoli Borza and Pietro Otello Romano with two events curated by Paola Valori, talent scout of underground culture, pop language and comics.
Some of the best-known Lowbrow artists are:
SHAG (Josh Agle)
Camille Rose Garcia
David “Squid” Cohen
Pool & Marianela
Felipe Bedoya (Doya)
Roby Dwi Antonio
Ana Hernandez San Pedro
Lowbrow works of art usually have the following sources of inspiration:
Ruffles of acid house
Graffiti and street art
Japanese and Chinese art
Art of pulp magazines
Toys for adults, particularly vinyl figures
Lowbrow art is exhibited in many galleries in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Of the more than 100 galleries that Lowbrow exhibits in the world, many are dedicated almost exclusively to this type of art. The most outstanding Lowbrow galleries are:
Red Dot Gallery
The hive gallery
The Light of Jesus by Billy Shire
Billy Shire Fine Art
Merry Karnowsky Gallery
The Conference Room Gallery
Jonathan LeVine Gallery
Strychnin Gallery NYC
The Clockworks Gallery
Roq la Rue
Gallery 1988 SF
The Shooting Gallery
Culture Cache Gallery
Lunar Boy Gallery
La Fiambrera Art Gallery
Mondo Bizzarro Gallery
Merry Karnowsky Gallery
There are several books that offer an overview of Lowbrow, such as:
kustom Graphics. Korero Books.
Kirsten Anderson (2005) Pop Surrealism: The Rise of Underground Art. ISBN 0-86719-618-1
Matt Dukes Jordan. (2005) Weirdo Deluxe: The Wild World of Pop Surrealism and Lowbrow Art. San Francisco: Chronicle Books. ISBN 0-8118-4241-X Apart from providing some of the best work samples of 23 Lowbrow or surrealist pop artists, “Weirdo Deluxe” includes an introduction, an extensive illustrated timeline of popular culture and fine arts in the twentieth century that have shaped this movement, as well as interviews with artists in which they discuss influences in their art.
Aaron Rose and Christian Strike. (2004). Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture. ISBN 1-891024-74-4
Sherri Cullison. (2002) Vicious, Delicious, and Ambitious: 20th Century Women Artists. ISBN 0-7643-1634-6 Women in the Lowbrow.
There are also books that focus individually on Lowbrow artists such as Mark Ryden, Robert Williams, Joe Coleman, Anthony Ausgang, The Pizz, SHAG (Josh Agle), Stacy Lande, Todd Schorr, Camille Rose Garcia and Elizabeth McGrath.
The magazine Juxtapoz by Robert Williams is an important Lowbrow publication that functions as a kind of movement bulletin.
FineRats Lowbrow Illustration Magazine is a quarterly free distribution publication, published in Spain, with 52 full-color pages centered on the Lowbrow.
Raw Vision magazine covers Lowbrow art and marginal art. It contains full color images, and concise articles about artists outside the mainstream.
Hi Fructose, appeared in 2005, specializing in Lowbrow art.
Forno Magazine also includes Lowbrow works related to sexual themes.
Several films have been made in order to document the Lowbrow movement, such as:
New Brow: the Birth of Pop Surrealism
The Treasures of Long Gone John
Lowdown on Lowbrow (60 mins)