Monday, October 20, 2008

“In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor" at Laguna Art Museum

Come one, come all and behold a real, live art movement, right now, in the 21st century!

It’s hard to believe that in the age of fissures and post-post modern indecisiveness, a cohesive art movement exists. The idea seems to belong in a sideshow theater, as an anomaly or a relic of the past, but there is proof at the Laguna Art Museum that the practice is not yet extinct. “In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor,” brings together 145 artists in the first large-scale display of art from what is commonly called the Low Brow or Pop Surrealist movement. Defying a concrete definition, the painting-based tendency of art is influenced by illustration, comics, car culture, street art, poster art, album covers, and many other veins of popular or “low” culture. Curator Meg Linton provides a focus for the potentially overwhelming exhibition by emphasizing the importance of Juxtapoz magazine, founded by artist Robert Williams in 1994, and its role in the dissemination of Low Brow art. Nearly all the artists in the exhibition were promoted in the pages of Juxtapoz during the first 10 years of its existence, helping to create what followers of the movement would eventually refer to as a “Juxtapoz” style.

Covering two floors of the museum, the show begins with spacious galleries neatly displaying blockbuster paintings. The first visible work is the Clayton Brothers’ sprawling, unstretched canvas titled Behave Be Kind (2000) that features cartoonish characters painted in a carnival aesthetic. The adjacent room holds underground icon Alex Grey’s monumentally-sized triptych Journey of the Wounded Healer, a hyper-detailed and brightly colored painting that combines anatomical drawing with psychedelic and spiritual imagery. So many of the paintings presented in the first two galleries are tour de forces exalting classical techniques and realistic rendering. Most notable is Mark Ryden’s crisp The Creatrix, a Renaissance-style portrait of a doe-eyed queen set against a surrealistic landscape containing dinosaurs, sea creatures, and a pipe-smoking Santa Claus with four arms. The painting could be the poster child for the term “pop surrealist” with its disparate images and novelty appeal.

The exhibition continues on the basement level of the museum, with a plethora of small and medium-sized works by staple Low Brow artists. Gary Baseman’s creepy-cute canvas featuring little girls clubbing strange characters greets the viewer at the bottom of the stairs, and it is set next to two small canvases from Takashi Murakami’s DOB series. While there are individual, strong pieces on the bottom floor, such as the more historical works by forefathers Henry Darger, R. Crumb, and R.K. Sloane, the rooms lack the fluidity of the first floor. The vibe is also generally thrown-off by Kevin Ancell’s noisy, chintzy installation Aloha Oe (2000) which consists of about 20 life-size, mechanized hula dancers holding guns and grenades. The swaying pieces of plastic take up far too much space in such an important exhibition.

Another weak point of the mostly well curated show is the appearance of “high brow” favorites Kara Walker, Wangechi Mutu and Patricia Piccinini, who have small pieces in side galleries on the main floor. Thrown in as references to the influence of Low Brow aesthetics on mainstream art, their inclusion comes off more as an attempt to legitimize the surrounding work than a way to diversify the content of the exhibition, as stated by Linton in the wall texts. There are valid arguments that can be made for other blue-chip artists in the show, such as Raymond Pettibon, Takashi Murakami and Andre Serrano; Pettibon was a part of the scene in the 1980s before his leap into the mainstream, Murakami is the father of Low Brow Japanese art and Serrano is featured in the exhibition as a representative of the culture wars of the late 1980s, which Linton states in the catalogue helped further Low Brow artists’ agenda of pushing boundaries. The strength of “Retinal Delights,” however, is its intense focus and the nod to the high brow world is mostly a distraction, even if a few of the artists’ involvement can be justified.

Presenting a large and complex movement for the first time is an enormous undertaking, and Linton could have easily tried to explore too much at once. Starting out with a small slice of the pie and moving forward from there is definitely more conducive than trying to tackle everything. Putting the focus on Juxtapoz, the artists that sparked its creation and the first group of artists that were, in turn, influenced by the magazine is an effective route to presenting Low Brow art to the public. Having said that, it would be wonderful to see an even larger retrospective at a major museum that outlines and organizes the movement as a whole. Although this is a West Coast-based exhibition, the influence of East Coast artists is greatly missed and the dynamic that the art of the two coasts creates is essential in providing an accurate scope of the movement. More scholarship in general needs to be dedicated to dissecting the intricacies of the multi-faceted style being that is the most cohesive and accessible movement of art in the past 20 years. Linton has planted a much-needed seed in the “established” art world, now others need to join in helping it to grow.

Anne Faith Nicholls at La Luz de Jesus Gallery

Every so often one finds a treasure amidst trash. The premise of La Luz de Jesus gallery in Los Angeles evokes the treasure hunter in us all, even if the art it presents isn’t always a gem. Located in the center of a larger, brightly colored shop filled with artsy odds and ends, the 22-year-old Low-Brow mainstay run by art guru Billy Shire continues to deliver new artists to a dedicated and appreciative public. This month a recent transplant from San Francisco, Anne Faith Nicholls, has her first Los Angeles solo show, “Neofolk.”

The aptly titled display of folksy, urban-influenced oil and mixed media paintings can be best described as cute and streamlined. The fare has stereotypically Low Brow characteristics such as an overload of tattoo-style swallows, five-point stars, poster-style letters and spray-paint drips. This borderline formulaic use of symbols is paired with an illustrative, flat perspective, and a compositional symmetry that all contribute to a design-oriented feel. Although the surface of the medium-sized canvases lacks texture, an illusion of layered media is created by painting images one-over-the-other. While there is no actual collage, the works definitely display a collage aesthetic.

Aside from the predictable application of swallows and paint drips, Nicholls’s distinct point of view shows through in her fusion of a whimsical folk-based style with urban landscapes and throw-backs to street art. Some elements are reminiscent of turn-of-the-last-century relics of pop culture, such as black paper silhouettes and ornate Victorian-style patterns, while emblems of 1950s California beach-culture make frequent appearances and a general “vintage” vibe dominates. Contemporary components are also easily identifiable, such as tattoo designs, clusters of modernistic skyscrapers, and an abundant use of spray-paint.

Described by the artist in the press release as “unapologetically autobiographical,” the content outlines her struggle for identity in paintings such as Looking Out From Within and The Plunge. Nicholls paints herself in seemingly internal conflict, surrounded by flames, lightning bolts and storm clouds in disjointed picture planes. In the former, she is trapped in a snow globe filled with rain and a burning building; in a surreal touch she has the body of a woman and the head of a pigeon. Dream-like fragmentation underlies the body of work as a whole, adding to Nicholls’s diverse pool of sources and her identification with the Pop Surrealist/Low-Brow movement.

The outcome of the amalgamation of old and new pop symbolism is a quaint and personable aesthetic that fits well in La Luz de Jesus’s low-key setting. Nicholls is not ready to show, however, at Shire’s bigger and more professional gallery in Los Angeles, Billy Shire Fine Arts. The artist has not ventured outside of using simple aesthetic equations set by the Low Brow movement, making it apparent that her art benefits greatly from being presented amidst the fantastic ambience of La Luz’s surrounding shop. Her paintings would gain strength if they were to express her own emotional reality without clinging to familiar symbols and techniques, a practice that is holding Nicholls’s back from growing as an artist.