Interview with Thomas Woodruff
September 29, 2008
The week before his solo show at P.P.O.W. gallery, I sat down with artist Thomas Woodruff, who is the head of the Illustration and Cartooning Department at the School of Visual Art. Woodruff’s work had just been featured in the first major retrospective of “Low Brow” art, “In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor,” at the Laguna Art Museum, curated by Meg Linton. The artists in this exhibition never agree on what to call their movement, and even if it can be called one singular movement at all. Woodruff has a lot to say on this matter, and about where he thinks he fits in as an artist inspired by, but not constricted to, the things of “lower” culture(s). The following are excerpts from Woodruff’s statements during our interview, edited down into something across between an essay and a fluid train-of-thought. -Abby Hertz
I don’t know if I’m actually considered a Low-Brow artist. I was recently in the Juxtapoz show, which is different from the term “low brow,” a term that came from the Juxtapoz editor Robert Williams, who said himself that it’s not the best term for this type of art. Pop surrealism isn’t any good either because it certainly doesn’t apply to my work, although I do prefer it to Low Brow.
The truth is I’ve been working way before Juxtapoz even started being published, let alone before the term “Low Brow” was coined. I’m actually surprised that I am linked in with Low Brow art, since the content is not used in a clear way, it’s used almost as a jazz riff. I’m a lot more specific in the way that I present my images. It’s not haphazard and it’s not meant to be kitschy. It’s meant to work with a vocabulary of images that people can associate and then come to some sort of realization or reaction, which is a little different from a gonzo surrealism. Pop Surrealists throw a lot of stuff together to get a warm fuzzy feeling. I have nothing against a warm pleasant feeling, but I have a different approach to imagery.
Surrealism in general isn’t all that interesting to me because it’s based on dreams and I think we live in a time where people’s bodies do really horrific things1, so the nightmare is not a Freudian dreamscape, it’s a reality. And I hope that in my work there’s a certain plausibility that’s not fantasy related. A lot of the artists that are considered part of this movement have a sort of “fun” quality to their work, which ultimately isn’t that satisfying to me.
I feel more of a parallel to artists who have been using figuration in a subversive way in terms of communicating ideas. I know who all of the interesting figurative artists are; we say hi to each other on the little figurative Disney Land ride that goes around in circles. I always thought figurative art was subversive because people other than the “indoctrinated” couldn’t enter into it. And I always thought that that was just a really subversive thing to do. When I first started making pictures with imagery, people thought that my work was conservative. It’s a complicated thing to try and walk all of the different lines at the same time--but it is changing, and you know when you refuse to move, eventually you’re somehow kind of respected.
So it’s not like it’s a wasteland. What I could do is a show on conceptual figuration. That is a movement. It’s not as loose and sloppy as Low Brow, which essentially came up because of Juxtapoz magazine, and all the people that were in Juxtapoz were in there because of some kind of personal relationship with Robert Williams or with Jamie O’Shea. Now it seems like Juxtapoz is older and that without the original publisher, it has gone corporate. Unless an artist has a deal to design sneakers and skateboards they’re not a “real” artist. And that’s totally contrary to the magazine’s roots. A lot of people are very saddened by that.
What happened was that all of a sudden a lot of poseurs were doing the look of some of the original artists without the skill or the depth. There are a million talented, good-looking, young artists trying to get someplace. You have to be serious about what you’re doing and not be in it for the wrong reasons: there has to be a cutting-off point. You can’t just be interested in what you’re interested in, you have to be interested in the tradition of making images. There is a strange, Low Brow cultural war that involves being working class and proud, and sort of stupid. The best artists that I know go to see everything and they really think about imagery. They go to films, they go to the opera, they go the ballet, and they’ll do all of these things that are not just a cool “surf thing” and not normally associated with low brow culture.
A lot of the Low Brow artists are very savvy commercially. I just wish it was a little smarter. There’s nothing really engaging me in ways that I wish I could be engaged. I’ll show you pretty stuff, and you can be amused by it like a child with a mobile above their basinet, but there’s other stuff out there. Most Low Brow artists aren’t doing anything except for the shiny mobile. It’s very seductive art. I myself like to use everything. I know as much about high culture as I do about low culture. The idea is to be able to navigate all of those things. It’s as much about the Pompeian fresco as it is about the sideshow banner.
When it comes down to it, there’s too much of a distinction between high and low art. The “good” artists are the ones that are usually off the beaten track. They are the minor notes on the scale, not the do re mi’s. I usually like the Juxtapoz artists who are not the superstars. A lot of these artists do need a lot more time prove themselves and to develop, though. If they’re doing their one-trick-pony over and over then they won’t end up being important. They’ll just remain one-trick-ponies. These artists don’t have a tendency to grow. I haven’t seen a lot of growth in the past 15 years; they’ve been using the same forms, same techniques. It’s the idea that if you hit a bank, you don’t have to work harder. The “look du jour” of Pop Surrealism is fairly easy to reproduce. The same thing happened with Abstract Expressionism where everybody and their brother were doing Ab-Ex because it was easy.
In modernism process trumped content. And I just never really understood that as being a value judgment. It always seemed an arbitrary distinction and huge swaths of our history have been minimized because of it. So, what is happening now is very similar. I’m called a mere illustrator, as opposed to a pure abstractionist, because I’m more interested in content rather than process. I’m still interested in process but it’s not fetishized the way it is in modernism. I’ve had to fight battles for it. The modernists are the real enemy to picture-making. And that’s simply because it’s just a bizarre bias that’s happened: loose is good, tight is bad. There’s no reason why that should exist. That’s a silly rule.
The big issue with Low Brow is what’s going to happen to this work. Because frankly there’s no major collector, there’s no Peggy Guggenheim. So that means, at least not at this point, that it’s not being protected. Serious collectors have been going elsewhere. Essentially it’s in the collections of a lot of people’s homes and not in institutions. Until it becomes the stuff of museums it’s very problematic. Real collectors and real curators aren’t taking that work and putting them into museums. I’ve been approached by a lot of the “low brow” gallerists and I’ve had to turn them down because I don’t want my work to be in the collection of Leonardo DiCaprio because you will probably never see that work again. It just gets sucked into this big vortex of celebrity which is driving Low Brow because most of it is on the West Coast.
The way that the art world works is that very influential people hook up with certain artists. They’ll buy a certain piece and give it to a major museum. Billy Shire, one of Low Brow’s biggest collectors and a gallerist, isn’t going to be giving his collection to LACMA. He doesn’t have those kind of relationships with bigger museums. Supposedly the Nike CEO is amassing a collection now, so his collection might end up being the most important for these artists. But the jury’s still out on that one. Either this guy is like the Gertrude Stein of Pop Surrealism or all of this great work is being heaped into a big black hole that’s never going to get out.
It’s going to be very hard to write criticism of Low Brow work as well. In the same way that serious collectors have not embraced it and museums have not embraced it, critics have also really been nasty about its relevance. I was one of the first curators to combine high brow and low brow art in one show in Chelsea. I think that the distinctions that have to be made are just whether it is good art or bad art. The exhibition I curated with Becky Smith at Bellwether Gallery was called “Idols of Perversity,” based on the book of the same title by Bram Dijkstra. He writes all about the pre-Raphaelites and that whole period in the 19th century where the male gaze created this sick girl or the demon girl and how every man wanted her because of her weakness. It’s a phenomenon that still happens today in both high and low art, so we explored that.
For example, on one wall we had a Ray Caesar of a girl smoking a pipe or something, a John Currin of a bald woman who almost looked like she was going through chemo therapy, and an exquisitely beautiful watercolor drawing by Mel Odom, who’s an illustrator from the 1980’s. So those three things were on a wall together and they were making this very interesting little song. And it was a kind of fascinating phenomenon, because the truth is, if I were to take one home with me, I would probably take the Odom because it’s just so beautiful. But the reviews were all about the Currin, because it was selling for, like, $600,000 while the others were much lower.
I don’t want to get into this whole Sarah Palin-insipired argument, where you like her because she’s like us and we don’t care if she’s not qualified, she’s not “elitist.” We have to very careful when we talk about low brow that we’re not talking about elitism. So that the artists involved are in fact trained and educated, once again, for the right reasons.
But, on the flipside, what’s really creepy in the art world, is that there is this certain bizzaro logic that artists like Elizabeth Peyton or Banks Violet are somehow the connection that out-of-touch collectors have with the youth culture. People think that Banks Violet is actually cool. When in actual fact, if he ever went to one of these heavy-metal concerts, he’d be beat up. So, there’s a total sense of falseness that these artists are tapping into. The high tapping the low, but it’s fake.
I remember at one point I was talking with an artist friend about what was happening in cartooning with manga, which is truly revolutionary. At that point, Marian Boesky had Murakami’s show of his art assistants doing manga work, and she said, “Oh! You have to send all of your students over to see this show!” And it’s like, uh, why should I send them? That show is the fake version, the commodified version, the whimpy version to appeal to rich, uptight collectors! It’s not anything authentic. What’s authentic is in ‘zines coming out. It’s like saying, “oh you like punk rock? There’s that Mama Mia on Broadway you should see.” What’s happening is that there’s these highfalutin, rich art kids going to these fancy schools, hooking into a little bit of pop culture and doing their first few shows on it. You walk into these shows and it’s like, “oh, ok. You’re doing a skateboard ramp. Isn’t that fantastic.” So, you know these tired, old collectors can feel like they know what’s going on with “kids today.” It’s sad.
I chose to dwell in academia because it’s a world of ideas and not a world of commerce.
All of these issues are things that I’ve had to wrestle with a lot, because I’ve been doing a traditional, fine art trajectory and creating work that doesn’t necessarily fit into any of these boxes. If you were to define what Low Brow art is, and start putting people into these boxes, than I don’t think I would fit in there, even if people lump me in to that category. First of all, because I’m gay. Everyone in the movement is a straight male doing images of girls. Or girls doing images of themselves. Essentially there’s an underlying misogyny that I don’t agree with, and that my work doesn’t reflect. I’m getting sick of seeing all these Christina Ricci portraits with surrealist bells and whistles attached. I’m over it. If that’s considered a movement, then what are we left with? Who’s included and who isn’t? It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of an impact this art will actually have.
1 Woodruff has often referenced the AIDS epidemic in his work, such as in his series The Secret Charts (1994) and Apple Canon (1996).