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Brooklyn Dispatches

Groundhog Day All Over Again: Lowbrow, No-Brow, Pop Surrealism

Robert Steel,
Robert Steel, "Speak No Evil" (2007), mixed media on paper.

“You know, I’m completely ignorant of that artist’s work. I try not to pay any attention to art history.” I heard these words from a slight, young European artist, a lock of hair strategically hanging across his left eye, just frazzled enough to be chic. I wanted to smack him upside the head; thought better, maybe just a headlock and some nuggies. It wasn’t like I was talking to him about some cult figure from Albania or Bushwick. I was referring to Robert Rauschenberg, the Robert Rauschenberg
I’d bumped into this kid after closing time on a Sunday afternoon in the “Killing Room” at a Williamsburg gallery. I’m usually running around looking at shows in the off-hours, trying to get an unobstructed view of the work. Seems young artists on the make have picked up on the idea, since it’s a great time to talk to exhausted gallerists wrapping up the weekend, their defenses down.

Hans (not his real name) is proposing an installation piece for the gallery, a large kiddy clubhouse of corrugated cardboard boxes on flimsy wooden supports. From the jpegs on his ultra-sleek notebook computer, I couldn’t help but recall Rauschenberg’s Card Bird series from the early seventies (probably several years before he was born). Some of these pieces were dead ringers.

I was still incredulous, wondering if Hans was pulling my leg, playing naïve to deflect any questions of derivation. Thinking back, I once loved to tweak geezers just to get a rise out of them, but in this case I had my doubts. As fashion and the market have become the sole forces shaping current art production, the concept of historical legacy, or its relevance to today, seems to have been relegated to some far-off garret of academia having nothing to do with studio or post-studio practice. After an excruciating ten-minute animated Flash presentation with alternative-punk musical accompaniment, a far cry from the manila envelope, slide sheets, and black tie portfolios I’d hauled around, I made a diplomatic dash for the door. Weaving my way down Driggs Avenue, I tried to console myself with the thought that perhaps my concern about art history was a personal hang-up, a real buzz-killer if you want to mingle with Williamsburg’s youngsters. Maybe it’s more important to just do art. A big enjoyable part of being young is being dumb. Unfortunately, the fearlessness of youth seems to have been replaced with a reluctance to venture out of the nursery. The trend towards infantile scribblings, childlike narratives, and exhibitions that could pass for kindergarten projects has gotten stale. I imagine dozens of recent art school grads, curled in fetal positions, wrapped in cuddly skuzzy blankets sucking their thumbs and afraid to leave babydom, endlessly rehashing images from afternoon cartoon shows but refusing to risk the uncomfortable realization that childhood wasn’t meant to last a lifetime.

“Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Yeah, it’s a well-worn cliché, but reliving history is preferable to being stuck in a one-note prehistory, and Santayana’s sentiments seem to be playing out in our amnesiac art world in evermore swiftly repeating cycles. The original movement/manifesto of the morning is supplanted by its post/neo version in the afternoon only to be pasted over with a cynical post-post kitsched-up neo-nuevo edition by dinnertime. Then it’s all repeated with minor variations the next day. Maybe Hans was right, forget the timeline, just make the work, even if it looks just like stuff done fifteen, thirty or fifty years ago. History is for “highbrows.”

Pop Subversion, an exhibition provocatively curated by Andrew Ford at Ad Hoc Art, presents a broad group of works that raises a range of questions about the current state of New Figuration, Street Art, Lowbrow and Graffiti. Presiding over this diverse group is an engagingly bizarre little canvas “In the pavilion of the Red Clown,” (2001) by the Californian cult favorite Robert Williams. Williams started out as an art director for Ed (Big Daddy) Roth, which are all the credentials I need. “Red Clown” is a masterfully illustrated set piece—a blitzed-out, one-legged clown holds up a bird cage with a white viper inside, the bulge of an undigested birdie preventing the serpent from slipping through the narrow bars, while a showgirl in a star-spangled costume recoils in shock against a backdrop of circus props, a prosthetic leg, and half a dozen empty vodka bottles. I called this an illustration, and William’s style and technique borrows a lot from magazines and comic books of the fifties and sixties, yet it begs the question: do we still need the divide between high and commercial art or has all art become commercial, with “high” referring only to the price tag? Perhaps critical rhetoric has evolved into an artifactual wardrobe, a reversible one-size-fits-all casual/formal cloak, draping the object in whatever conceptual garment fits the occasion?

Pop Subversion lies on this cusp, and subverts not just from the bottom up but from the top down. Since its New York flowering in the early seventies, Graffiti has morphed from underground bad-boy turf marking to chic gallery darling to corporate logo design and back. Local “Old School” Graf, with its broad arm swings, twisted interlacings and rugged spontaneity, has more than a passing relation to New York School Action Painting, and as with the waning of the “Tenth Street Touch,” when pressed on whether we’ve now entered a state of Post-Graffiti Mr. Ford demurred, stating he couldn’t answer that question. However, works on display—like “Power Girl Black” and “Power Girl Green” by AICO, which maintain a scruffy aerosol facture while melding erotic cartoon images of a bounding buxom super-babe with the stencil technique now popular in contemporary street art—seem to imply we have.

“Landscape” is a nightmarishly comical scene by Joe Vaux that intermingles a hallucinatory cast of goofy mini-monsters, anthropomorphized trees and mutant birds. Its gestalt—Hieronymus Bosch meets Joan Miró on Nickelodeon’s Martian channel—and its slick surface and peachy color scheme wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of a children’s fantasy sci-fi book.

Although not hung entirely salon style, mostly the works are packed in without much breathing room. The claustrophobic feeling lends a streetwise sincerity to the installation—akin to standing shoulder-to-shoulder on a packed L train—but it also suits most of the medium to small-sized works well. Strolling around the gallery just when I thought I’d gotten a fix on some commonality, a piece like “See No Evil” by Robert Steel would pop up. This black-and-white drawing of a girl and boy in a tenement back lot next to a graveyard in Washington DC is an engaging character study, and though realistically detailed with well-rendered textures and skin tone, it doesn’t quite fall into the hyper-realist category. The use of deep raking shadows and subtle gradations seem to radiate heat from a glaring grisaille sun.

The eyes have it, and there was certainly a sizable contingent from the “Big Eye” school of painting. I heard comments a couple of years ago during the Armory Show Art Fair about the glut of figurative pieces with big eyes. At the time, it seemed to reflect the influence of Japanese anime on “Chick Art.” In the works of Gil, Camilla d’Errico, Fawn Fruits, Sandra Chi and Benjamin Lacombe included in this show, the glistening-iris-and-deep-pupils trend has continued in an apparent homage to that still-active avatar of twentieth century kitsch, Margaret Keane. Even so, the “Big Eye” girls in Camilla d’Errico’s paintings get an edgy twist, wearing hats swarming with white mice and centipedes or receiving licentious kisses with mouths full of honeycombs.

Brendan Danielsson contributes sharp-focus portrait drawings depicting unsettling, sexually ambiguous grotesques. The man/woman in “Texas Tea” could be from a long-faded photo of a pioneer couple who have somehow melded together. On the right side, a grizzly, weather-beaten settler in a stiff suit and collar, black beard and curling mustache, grimaces while he/she transitions to an equally tough female left side with flowing black hair and an exposed breast squirting milk over the prairies.

Perhaps an aspect of Post-Modernist thought is the attempt to transcend our obsession with novelty and the post-neo-newest, to jump the timeline and see history as a ball rather than a strip, an ocean rather than a river. After all, the Gothic style was vibrant for three hundred years. Surrealism, though perhaps not quite so durable, keeps coming back like a persistent skin rash. And rather than asking ourselves if it’s a failure of artistic originality that an image might echo something done decades ago, we might rather ponder what kinds of shared impulses an artist in Paris in the 1930s, San Francisco in 1969, or Brooklyn in 2008 would lead to such similar results?

A video tour of Pop Subversion with an Andrew Ford interview is available at:


James Kalm

JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene.  In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2008

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