Kirsten Anderson is the owner and curator of Roq La Rue Gallery (www.roqlarue.com). Kirsten opened Roq La Rue gallery in 1998 in reaction to the Northwest’s lack of alternative art spaces. Fueled by a devotion to the rapidly growing Lowbrow/Pop Surrealism art movement, the gallery quickly gained notoriety, and respect, as one of only a handful of galleries (at the time) willing to show the work. As a bonus, an enthusiastic community of collectors responded quickly to the gallery’s eclectic mix of artists, whose outlaw sensibilities and counter-cultural subject matter was rendered with undeniable ability and vision. I would like to thank Kirsten for giving her opinion about the following issue.
Brian Sherwin: Kirsten, there has been some debate about the connection between Lowbrow art and Pop Surrealism. Many combine the two as one movement of art while others state that the two are unique art movements that simply share common ground. As someone who has been very involved in these scenes, what is your opinion about their connection? Are they one in the same or should they be seen as two different movements?
Kirsten Anderson: Well- as far as I know I'm one of the few who have stated they believe that there are two different things going on... I think Lowbrow begot Pop Surrealism in a lot of ways. When I first got involved with this movement a decade ago it was called "Lowbrow". That term was used by Robert Williams to describe his own work and the work of the artists who sort of orbited him. It was meant tongue-in-cheek, but also it stayed in usage because it unapologetically stated that this art was not trying to appeal to overly academic art critics. At the time, I think people involved knew something big was happening but the prospect of this work (with the exception of Robert Williams) ever appearing in museums or scholarly treatises seemed very remote. Now that is very different, this whole scene has become a whole different animal so to speak.
In the late 90's the scene was small and mostly confined to Southern California. Juxtapoz magazine was in circulation and really helped shape what was starting coalesce as a "movement". Juxtapoz focused on figurative and narrative art with a big dose of cartoony freak appeal, but they also celebrated artists who were outstandingly technically proficient, whether that meant an underground cartoonist or someone like Mati Klarwein or Ernst Fuchs. Being unshackled from what everyone else thought was pretty liberating and allowed a lot of room for artists to work within. Out of this scene came artists like Mark Ryden, Camille Rose Garcia, Glenn Barr, Liz McGrath, Shag, Tod Schorr, and Tim Biskup- all of whom are wildly different yet share some undefinable something that links them. That undefinability has been the main problem with "naming" this scene.
When I wrote "Pop Surrealism", which was the first survey of this new art scene in 2004, I was originally going to call it "Lowbrow". Several of the artists I had asked to be in the book were keen on the project but no longer wanted to be called "Lowbrow", to them it sounded denigrating, which made sense as many of these artists were transcending the rough and tumble work Lowbrow had first started as and was becoming more refined. So I had to come up with another title... which took me six months to do. I latched onto "Pop Surrealism" through Kenny Scharf... I think he coined the term to describe his own work, and I thought it was the closest umbrella term I could think of. After that the term started to become used as a name for this scene, although people still use Lowbrow also, since that was the original name.
To me- Lowbrow art is what the scene originally started as... work that stayed true to it's more "working class roots" more or less, and focused on the fetishization of counter-cultural icons (such as hot rods, surfing, rock n roll, monsters, drugs, ect). I find this work to be more transgressive, provocative and very non-polite... it has a purity underneath because it was never intended to be anything other than what the artist was responding to in his or her life. I can't see this type of work ever truly being accepted by the "high" world. To understand more of the genesis of where Lowbrow came from I recommend reading Larry Reid's essay in Pop Surrealism.
As time went on and interest and inspiration of this art started to grow, new artists began to appear and they often brought a more "refined" sensibility to the genre. Also- the artists who'd been working in the scene started to grow and explore as well. A good example of this is someone like Mark Ryden being so quickly embraced. Artists started working with more fantastical imagery and the work started to become more dream-like and surreal, and personal. The work started to become more "beautiful" and have more palatable imagery. To me, this new form of work is "Pop Surrealism"- I would use Ryden, Marion Peck, Alex Gross, and Eric White as examples of what I'm talking about. If you compare their work with artists who I would put in the "Lowbrow" genre like Anthony Ausgang, the Pizz, XNO, Van Arno, and Shag you can see that they are very different.
So to me there is a division, but a very fluid division. Now with street art infiltrating the scene you have even more fluidity, with artists like Jeff Soto rising to prominence within the genre, who can cross back and forth between Pop Surrealism and Street Art easily. Also- Juxtapoz has seemingly morphed itself into a street art magazine and I think that causes the lines to blur further. Collectors who buy Shag might also buy Anthony Micallef.
Lastly, there has been an implosion of new galleries who show this kind of work but who might not have a real understanding of how this scene originated. They are just showing stuff they like, which is fine, but now anyone can be a "pop surrealist" artist these days. I'm not even sure that the term has any real meaning anymore. The galleries (myself included) will show Audrey Kawasaki or people like Jonathan Viner... they are not "Pop Surrealism" nor "Lowbrow"- they are just very good contemporary figurative art, but they still fall into that scene.