lowbrow: from underground to mass culture (part1)

By Carolina Arán

If there’s a representative cultural movement on the world scene of the illustration in the last fifty years, it is with no doubt the so-called Lowbrow art. Born in California in the late 1970s, Lowbrow art arises from subcultures such as hippy, punk or underground comic, and grows and establishes itself through painting, illustration, digital art and production of author toys among other means, to become the creature of a thousand tentacles that it’s today.

Indispensable for the foundation of this movement were galleries of Los Angeles and New York as La Luz de Jesús, the Psychedelic Solution or the Julie Rico, that bet to diffuse an artistic production considered outside of the circuit of the so-called Fine Arts until then. As the creation of the magazine Juxtapoz was also fundamental to the definitive explosion of this current in the 1990s, by the painter, illustrator and cartoonist Robert Williams, who is supposed to be the first to mint the term Lowbrow.

Also known as pop surrealism, this style full of imagination, humor and sarcasm, father of subsequent movements and subtendences, moves on the boundary between the “major” and “minor”arts. Many of the Lowbrow creators have challenged the rigid parameters of the Highbrow: they are autodidactic, or come from disciplines not included in the Fine Arts in theory, as illustration or cartoon. Their production has therefore been excluded in the environment of criticism and academy, which has continuously questioned their legitimate artistic value. However it is in this underground vocation where resides the greatest charm of the Lowbrow, that has finally conquered the international world of collecting and art galleries of the present day, breaking down all the elitist and academic barriers.

In Lowbrow illustration we find reminiscences of previous movements such as dadaism, surrealism, psychedelic art or pop art, and influences of all kinds of elements: advertising, animation, comics, toys, propaganda, religious art, graphic erotism, science fiction, urban art, tattoo… A universe that has driven the revival of classical arts and traditional techniques to put them at the service of popular culture. The work of the most representative Lowbrow illustrators breaks with the established, heading towards two opposing circuits in principle: that of commercial illustration and merchandising products, and that of the original work and limited edition prints for galleries. Between these two paths is the work of the American Mark Ryden, the great illustrator of the Lowbrow and one of the parents of this subculture, known both for his illustrations for books, music records and toys as for his elaborate paintings for galleries and museums. Ryden’s illustration, like that of many other authors of the same current, moves in the boundaries between captivation and repulsion, between the deep and the insubstantial, between the kitsch and the religious. Very similar characteristics are found in the work of Marion Peck, painter, illustrator and wife of Ryden, another of the main figures in the foundation of the Lowbrow. His illustrations, ironic and surrealist, have in common with that of Ryden the taste for children’s iconography and a refined, almost precious technique.

Joe Coleman’s illustration also shares that passion for refined technique and the profusion of details, although it poses an aesthetic almost in the antipodes of the previous artists. The paintings and illustrations of this American represent the sickest and subterranean side of the Lowbrow movement. His intricate style, inspired by the traditions of classical painting, and his speech around violence, religion, crime and death have made him one of the most controversial exponents of Lowbrow art. Sharing with Coleman a taste for horror we find the British Ray Caesar, one of the movement’s fathers in Europe, whose work as an illustrator, painter and animator connects the conscious and subconscious worlds, in a particular universe filled with sexuality, horror, humor and beauty. Also on the way between beauty and violence is the work of the American Gary Baseman, a clear example of the self taught and independent creator who succeeds in conquering both major brands and media as well as the surroundings of international galleries. In his illustrations prevails the importance of the message over the technique, using materials such as colored pencils, paint or pen within a vintage, surrealist, creepy and childish aesthetic. As a representative of the Lowbrow, Baseman has spread his unmistakable work through fields such as fashion, advertising, video clips, toys or animation, to become a cult artist.

Lowbrow’s parents’ family photo expands with authors such as Alex Gross, Camille Rose García, Glenn Barr, Gary Taxali, Kenny Scharf or Kalynn Campbell, creators with a great sense of both criticism and humor; illustrators of diverse and very personal aesthetic and techniques, who have laid the foundations for the subculture that was pop surrealism has become the main artistic current of our times. A movement that has been opening up a boundless path for a whole generation of young illustrators of the 21st century.