Editorial: Brow Beaten - Publication: Dart Magazine - September 2009 Back to Editorials

For the uninitiated, lowbrow art AKA pop surrealism AKA illustrative art has its origins in Los Angeles California in the 1970s. Its heritage draws from a plethora of influences, from underground comicbooks, to hotrod and surf culture, through to the art and subculture associated with the proliferation of punk music.

From icons such as Robert Williams, Mark Ryden and Ron English to blossoming stars Camille Rose Garcia, and Shepherd Fairey, a huge number of artists constitute this rapidly expanding genre, one that has made the transition from “underground,” status to a mainstream art genre, reinforced by its ongoing success and salability.

Testament to  the  popularity of all things “lowbrow,” are its spiraling prices , with works by the likes of Williams, Joe Coleman and  Mark Ryden fetching up to $300,000, while earlier careerists are achieving around $20k for the average piece.

Seasoned artist Anthony Ausgang, himself a lowbrow artist repped by Copro Nason gallery at Santa Monica’s Bergamot station was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1959 to a Dutch mother and Welsh father. The family moved to Houston Texas in the early 1960s,  and Ausgang's father made brave attempts to assimilate by attending custom car shows and demolition derbies. Ausgang eventually encountered Ed Roth the renowned hotrod artist.

After a short stint studying art at The University Of Texas in Austin, Ausgang moved to Los Angeles where he began classes at The OtisArt Institute. Disappointed  he dropped out to start showing his artwork to as many galleries as would tolerate his frequent visits. He was finally accepted by Zero One Gallery, a stalwart haven for all things lowbrow.

Asked about the rising popularity of the  genre Augang reflects ”If  traditional means standard high brow art like single color canvas paintings, the Fine Art Mafia will never willingly allow “lowbrow” art to outsell  the stuff currently clogging up galleries and museums,” says Ausgang.” I don’t think that the art uneducated masses consider “lowbrow” viable interior decoration. There is a cultural threat inherent in “lowbrow” that will never be acceptable to them.”

”For the genre to take the lead in the sales price of individual pieces of art there must be a major crossover star; a situation similar to Andy Warhol and his Pop Art banishing the Abstract Expressionists from meaningful contemporary art collections.,“Ausgang says
Unlike other more provincial areas of the US  the lowbrow network now encompasses a growing cast of galleries. Gallerist Billy Shire started his “lowbrow,” exhibition space in  Los Feliz back in 1986 with what was essentially a kitsch toy shop with small exhibition annex,  La Luz galleries AKA Wacko. Nowadays he has retained the toyshop, though has an additional space, Billy Shire Fine Arts in Culver City, where he shows the likes of Gary Baseman, Tim Biskup, Liz McGrath, and Shag.

Shire says lowbrow’s increased popularity has seen a reaffirmation of painterly traditions. “It has bought painting and craft back into art, there are parallels with it and the realist movement of the 1930s and 1940s. Bad art can occupy all genres, but its less evident in lowbrow, artists cant get away with it so much whereas conceptual stuff is often just the kings new clothes.”

It’s a younger market often people who work in the entertainment industry, they see something personal in the work and aren’t really buying it as a status symbol, they really aren’t concerned with fine art,” Shire adds. In terms of up and coming artists within the genre, Billy Shire cites  artists Jessica Cooper, Yumiko Kayakawa and Esther Pearl Watson.  The “next wave,” for Merry Karnowsky includes Mercedes Helnwein Eric Beltz, Cleon Peterson, Andrew Schultz and Chilean artist Viktor Castillo.

As  rep/gallery for some of lowbrow’s biggest stars, including  Todd Schorr, Mark Ryden and Camille Rose Garcia, gallerist Merry Karnowsky and her namesake space have enjoyed unparalleled success, prompting the opening of an additional satellite gallery in  the hip artsy s borough of Mitte,in  East Berlin. 

“When I opened my LA gallery 12 years ago, the ‘Lowbrow’ movement had nothing close to the momentum and recognition it has now.,” says Merry “The term ‘Lowbrow’ was used by people within the movement as a tongue and cheek reaction to the dismissive attitude that the ‘High Brow’ Art establishment seemed to show towards it at the time.”

“From what I’ve observed over the past several years, the ‘Lowbrow genre’ does indeed seemed to be outselling the more ‘traditional’ galleries, but I suppose it is all relative. Traditional galleries are selling Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami at record breaking prices, so it really depends on what side of ‘traditional’ you are on.”

Karnowsky sees her buyers as, “aesthetically savvy and well rounded.”  “They buy from the gut without needing to be told what is fine art and what is not. Most respond to the work on an emotional and visceral level over theoretical.”

Jeremy Pressman  who heads Copro nason Gallery in Santa Monica prefers the term “pop surrealisn,” over lowbrow,“ He also believes Its a worldwide movement influenced by everything from tattoo art to comic books  to graffiti and pop surrealism.  “Artists are now commanding the same prices as top blue chips artists and  the buyers are all over the globe, I sell to people in Thailand, China, Germany and The UK.”

Newcomer Seth Carmichael, director of Carmichael gallery dropped his career in TV for the role of full time gallerist two years ago . His West Hollywood based  space cites street and installation based art as their area of specialty “There is more public interest in lowbrow, urban, street, pop-surreal, juxtapoz, whatever you want to call the underground. It's not so underground anymore,” Seth says, adding.” Lowbrow galleries have accessible price points for relatively consumer friendly work so they do more volume of sales, where traditional galleries tend to sell much pricier work, so they need less sales.

Still, many like LA based art Critic/ commentator, Matt Gleeson, Publisher of Coagula art journal  remain ambivalent about the notion of lowbrow fetching higher prices and its ensuring popularity.” I don't think lowbrow is outselling purchases of major artworks - but it is opening licensing agreement possibilities with galleries that the "avant garde"  galleries never deal with. Let's face it, there just is no demand for a Robert Smithson Bobblehead doll, but aren't there like ten Camille Rose Garcia toys out there every year.”

Written by Craig Stephens

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