Elevating the underground

Jen Trute's "Sunbathe Barbie at Bombay Beach for Lowbrow Show" is pictured above.

A high-end art museum opens a lowbrow art show

By Kinsee Morlan, originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 1/20/2009

When co-curator Michael Gross sent out invitations to the Oceanside Museum of Art’s Jan. 24 Lowbrow Art: Nine San Diego Pop Surrealists show, he got one back with a yellow Post-it note attached.

“This is disgusting—appalling—not art—more porno—ad nauseam!” The words came at him like tiny daggers flying straight into his eyeballs.

Gross, a movie producer and artist known for designing the Ghostbusters logo, set the note down, then picked up the phone and called most of the nine artists in the show.

“One of the artists suggested we get it blown up and hang it in the museum!” he mused between chuckles in his New York-cynic sort of way.

If it were any other museum show, the artists probably wouldn’t have been so amused by the seething Post-it, but if Mary Fleener, Scott Saw, Tim McCormick, Scrojo, Jason Sherry, Charles Glaubitz, Ron Wharton, Pamela Jaeger and Jen Trute have one thing in common, it’s a lack of pretension and an elevated sense of humor.

In fact, a sometimes sick, other times sarcastic, and often times opinionated sense of humor is one of the most common traits of the artwork that now falls under what’s called the “lowbrow” movement in some circles and “pop surrealism” in others (the interchangeability of the two is still up for debate because some consider pop surrealism a subgenre of lowbrow).

The term “lowbrow” has its roots in the pinup art of the 1950s and gig posters and comic art of the ’60s, but it didn’t really make its way into popular vernacular until the ’80s. By the late ’90s, more and more artists started painting lonely-looking cartoon-like characters set against post-apocalyptic surreal scenes, and few arts writers, curators and gallery owners knew what to call it. That’s about the time the term “pop surrealism” hit the scene.

Really, though, both words are just vague references or attempts by the art establishment to group together a style of work that finds inspiration in things like comics, cartoons, tattoos, hotrods, skateboarding, graffiti, street culture and rock ’n’ roll; is centered around Los Angeles and San Francisco; and has its own bible in the art magazine Juxtapoz (whether adherents to the scene still follow or give a damn about the magazine anymore is currently a matter of debate, several artists say).

Lowbrow art is a lot of things traditional fine art isn’t. It’s funny, often illustrative and narrative and rife with pop-culture references, but, otherwise, it’s all over the place in content and form, taking shape as paintings, sculpture, posters, art books and even vinyl toys. But in no way does the “low” in “lowbrow” mean the painterly skills or technical execution of the work is any less deserving of highbrow appreciation. Artists like Mark Rydon, Frank Kozik, Robert Williams and Tim McCormick, who just turned 40 and has been painting for the better half of his life, are prime examples of that.

“I personally really dislike the term ‘lowbrow,’” McCormick says during one of his dog-walking breaks, which force him out from behind his chaotic canvases and onto the relative calm of the streets of Oceanside. “I remember reading it in Juxtapoz a long, long time ago when that magazine first came out, and I remember people desperately trying to put some kind of identification on the movement…. For me, personally, it doesn’t fit me really at all, but I’ve kinda given up on explaining my work to a lot of people, because, my understanding of art lately—each artist and their work has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. You can group things and put people in groups all you want, but, ultimately, you have to take it case-by-case.”

McCormick and the rest of the painters and art enthusiasts who’ve been either in or watching the lowbrow scene for awhile are the first to recognize and criticize the recent over-saturation and obvious rip-off work of younger artists who slap a doe-eyed character in a dreamscape and call themselves pop surrealists. It’s easy to understand why McCormick took last year off so he could slip out from under the lowbrow umbrella and further develop his own style.

“It’s not like there aren’t good artists within the scene,” McCormick says. “There are good pieces here and there. There are pockets of good work and then overwhelmingly bad and ignorant work from the masses—that’s just the nature of the beast.”

Wading through the beast to find the region’s best pop surrealists was largely the job of Jerry Waddle. Waddle, the bespectacled owner of Ducky Waddles, the underground art-and-culture oasis in Encinitas, has been dealing, collecting and showing contemporary art since the mid-’90s. When asked to co-curate the museum show, he pretty much knew immediately who the first five artists were going to be. The next four took a little time, but Waddle has so many artists in his arsenal that it wasn’t much of a stretch. The guy, after all, has artists like Shepard Fairey willing to show in his tiny shop’s gallery thanks to his collector’s sense and ability to catch on to trends before the rest of the world (Waddle was showing Fairey in his store long before people figured out what the weird Andre the Giant face was all about).

“There are a lot of people who want to be artists or who think they are artists but don’t really fit the true definition of the word,” Waddle says. “There are also artists that would fit into the genre but are more derivative of other artists; in other words, they didn’t have their own artistic voice developed. Mary Fleener, Scott Saw, Scrojo, Tim McCormick—all of the artists I chose have their own artistic voice. They aren’t copying or derivative of some already-established lowbrow artist out there.”

Some of the artists Waddle settled on, particularly McCormick, whose new work is deeper and more Goya-esque with intense sex and violence themes, and Fleener, whose new work is aesthetically closer to cubism mixed with Native American and Tiki influences, hardly fit inside the lowbrow or pop-surrealism category anymore, but Waddle says he was more concerned with involving artists who blazed the lowbrow trail rather than those who simply followed the path.

“I do not see it as a necessity for them to stay within their particular style,” Waddle explains. “I feel it’s important for their growth as an artist. They needed to grow out of that and move forward.”

Others in the show—like Scrojo, the poster artist who does all the gig posters for Belly Up Tavern, a music venue in Solana Beach, and whose most recognizable figures are his hot punk-rock chicks with big and perky breasts—are planted firmly and proudly in the lowbrow genre and probably will be for life.

“What happened was the death of the LP art and even the CD art,” Scrojo says, pushing up his signature black-framed, yellow-lens glasses and launching into an explanation of why he’s stuck to music-poster art. “There is no longer a direct connection between artwork and the music coming out, so the only thing left is the gig poster, and it was never thought or planned out that this is what I’m going to do—it was just by divine accident. But, yeah, the gig poster is the last direct connection between rock ’n’ roll and art.”

That’s why, even when people like the irate Post-it sender get offended by imagery like the kick-ass design Scrojo came up with for the Lowbrow invitations—a drawing of one of his voluptuous hot chicks covered in tattoos, which, if you look closely, are actually representations of all of the nine artist’s work in the show—he and other artists like him will keep doing what they’re doing no matter what the art world thinks or how it’s labeled in the end.

An opening reception for Lowbrow Art: Nine San Diego Pop Surrealists will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 24, at the Oceanside Museum of Art, 704 Pier View Way. Admission is $10. The show will be on view through May 24.

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