Sunday, October 21, 2007

Art Space Opinions: Kirsten Anderson on Pop Surrealism

Kirsten Anderson is the owner and curator of Roq La Rue Gallery ( 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.


Anonymous said...

Robert Williams is a case study in selective history and personal myth. He did not coin 'lowbrow art', though he does try to claim it and shape history to his whims. It had been used several decades before he first started using it. The Nazi's used it often to describe degenerate art. You don't need to be an art scholar to know that. Just pick up a basic book of art history.

This is off topic, but I'm not a big fan of Williams. In my opinion he has sold out with the way Juxtapoz Magazine is today. I read about a staff member who was advocating for street art and had some trouble with the law and Juxtapoz gave no support. So how can a magazine claim to be about the streets and counterculture when they look the other way when the law tries to kill that form of expression?

Don't be duped. Thanks for hitting on this topic because I think more people need to talk about it than a handful of magazines that are corporate slaves!

Anonymous said...

I agree about how everyone and their mother claims to be a part of the Popsurrealism movement. A lot of people don't know how their work fits so they just lump it in that direction. The kiddies do it all the time on deviantart and livejournal. I think it is unfair to the artists who have made the movement what it is today. The same thing happens with Stuckism and other current art movements. So part of the problem is that art movements are too open today. The doors are left wide open and everyone races in with the hope of becoming an underground artstar. In the past art movements involved a dozen people at most. Today people think international appeal when they start a movement of art. I think that is a little bit of Warhol rubbing off. In the past art movements were not created, they just happened. Now everyone wants a little fame.

old hack said...

Basquiats the best. Americans thrive on junk. We are a junk nation. Thats why the simplest symbolism of junk is inspiring cuz it connects us with our surroundings in a surreal way. sorta like how things seem different when you're high

Anonymous said...

Kirsten is a wonderful person and always offers honest opinions about art. She has passion. Sadly, that is something that a lot of people involved with art lack. Thanks for posting this.


Kenneth Griffin said...

I don't know if it is selling out when the "underground" pop-surrealist gets recognition from the so-called high brow/mainstream art establishment. Free thinking artist that rip on the world, expose the human condition, pop culture and everything else have to eat too! Many pop-surrealist artist are technically superior to their mainstream counterparts. There are a few pop-surrealist that would make Carivaggio and Rubens take notice.
Unfortunately, mainstream art critics tend to promote garbage to god like status. Some of the most technically inept artist have been elevated to master status by critics. We were taught they were great in art school(they aren't). You know who they are.
The last thing the pop-surrealism "movement" needs is to have a pop-surrealist that is a lousy draftsman and painter promoted to the mainstream art establishment.
So, making a living as an artist is a good thing and if breaking into mainstream is going to get you paid, then so be it. It's not selling out, it's survival. I only hope that the artists that do end up rubbing elbows with the high brow set are actually good artist.
Pop-surrealism needs more promotion and technically sound artist representation. We don't need paint slingers and cubist!
Also, I don't see a lot of people on DA jumping on the pop-surrealism bandwagon. Most of them probably don't know how to begin to define it let alone create work in it.
Pop-surrealism is technically sound art that makes an in your face statement. We don't paint pictures of flowers or children holding hands!

As an aside, There are kids with spray cans putting pieces that make the gods of modern art look like the untalented, undeserving slugs that they are. Get those kids in school, train them on the fundamentals and let them do their thing, pop-surrealism will flourish.

Anonymous said...

To me pop surrealism is just one more way to define and package art. I am not saying that in a negative way. Pop surrealism is probably about as good a description as any.

For myself I am convinced that the only way that a current shakedown and a much needed shuffle in the artworld can occur is through Anti-art.

Anonymous said...

Nothing wrong with slinging paint. I'm not sure what the above comment meant by being against paint slinging. Do you mean your against artists who work like Jackson Pollock? Do you know why he worked like that? Have you ever read any of his writings about art? Could you pull it off just as well? Many have tried. Sometimes it helps to know why the artists did what they did instead of reading why the critics like them. I have to admire Jackson because he DID change the way a painting could be seen. Others after him working in that manner are just creating for the bucks, but the same can be said for several top pop surrealism artists and artists in general.

Do you mean that all art should be done in a traditional realistic manner as far as application is concerned? For example, take any popular theme in pop surrealism. Is it better if that theme is done realistically? Or is it fine if it is done in an expressive, deceptively childlike, manner.

Based on your statement I'd have to assume that you would not consider the work by the German Expressionists or the founding Surrealists as good art. Right? Many of those artists did not work in a overly realistic manner but they paved the way for guys like Williams to do what he does.

To say that Pop Surrealism should reflect only realism like that would be like embracing the old academy with a bastard child in hand. The cubists broke away from tradition for a reason. Back then THEY WERE THE UNDERGROUND! Show some respect.

Another problem with what the comment above is suggesting is the fact that several of these technically skilled pop surrealist painters did not work in that manner until they realized how popular it was at which point their work and practice shifted for profit. I could mention names but I won't. I know because I was there and have watched many of them grow into what they are today.

Some of the bigger names can only show work spanning just a few years. What, did you think they painted that great overnight? They painted differently until they noticed that pop surrealism was making an impact at which point their traditional figures became bobbleheaded kids with living suckers. False vision! So how do you weed out the fakes from the real kings and queens of this movement?

Maybe that is why pop surrealism has not been respected by critics. Because critics know when someone is creating bandwagon art no matter how technically skilled it is.

I hate when debates like this turn into my art is better than your art affairs.

Anonymous said...

"I believe that if it were left to artists to choose their own labels, most would choose none." - Ben Shahn

I think Ben Shahn's statement sums it up the best. I think everyone needs to stop worrying about what to call their art and just make the best art they can.


Anonymous said...

The majority of artists in the lowbrow/pop surrealist movement are copy cat artists, pulling from artists with less fame. I'm over the lowbrow/pop-surrealism movement. I feel its become a movement of copy cat artists and advertising.

You should be able to see the influences and research that goes into an artists' paintings, where they've lived, what they've studied. I fear for the future of pop-surrealism when some of the leading gallerists in the genre (i.e. Kirsten and Levine) support artists who are fakes at best.

I pray to god to not be grouped into the "movement."

Anonymous said...

I don't know that Juxtapoz has turned into a street art magazine as much as it has opened itself to covering artists with a background in street art or graffiti. Juxtapoz has covered less than a handful of artists whose work is solely exhibited outside and/or illegally. The proof is in the mag. See for yourself.

There seems to be a misconception that Juxtapoz has turned its back on "Pop Surrealism" and "Lowbrow" art. It has simply evolved to *also* recognize the cultural influence - the MAJOR cultural influence - of street art, graffiti, commercial illustration, graphic design, and independent artists being shown in galleries and museums and being incorporated into commerce and other artistic media.

Purists decry the lack of Kustom Kulture, tattoo flash and surreal cartoony narrative montage... but Juxtapoz rode those ponies into the ground and now they're getting flack for evolving and expanding their coverage to include new things? Damned if you do...

Anonymous said...

Does anyone have links to the essays cited by Anderson?

Travis Louie said...

Seems no one wants to say who they are, . . . there are too many anonymous comments left here.
There's nothing wrong with speaking your mind, . . . but it seems to have less of an impact if the speaker is "anonymous".

Balhatain said...

I agree with you Travis. I'd like to talk to a few of the people that have left comments and give them a chance to better explain their position on the matter. Hit and run comments like this do not add anything to the debate. It comes off as petty flaming.

Warm regards,


Anonymous said...

Can't we all just create our art, call it what we want, and stop with all of the judgement of each other? Aren't we losing sight of why we wanted to create in the first place? You all sound like the art critics-pretentious, and spouting superfluous BS that doesn't really do anyone any good.