Pop Surrealism / Underground Art
A wonderful book about the Pop Surrealism movement is "Pop Surrealism: The Rise of Underground Art" by Kirsten Anderson (owner and curator of Roq La Rue gallery in Seattle). The book begins with this essay by Robert Williams titled "Dumbing Down to DaVinci":
In the spring of 1997 I received a phone call from a very knowledgeable art history writer named Nancy Dustin Wall Moure This highly educated and soft-spoken woman explained to me that she had been working for some years on a serious art reference book about the complete history of California art. She then went on to say she had received assistance and suggestions from the well known Los Angeles art dealer, James Corcoran. Corcoran recommended to her, to make this large collection complete, that she might want to talk to me to round up any loose ends in the esoteric West Coast art underground. Nancy Moure had seemingly left no stone unturned in compiling a massive 560-page tome covering 430 years of California art. In my mind this book would go down in the annals of art education like Helen Gardner's Art Through the Ages, or John Canaday's Mainstreams of Modern Art. History books that were important textbooks.
The question was: How do you inform an extremely well-versed and perceptive art historian that, despite her extensive academic background, unbeknownst to her, lying coiled like a cobra at her feet is one of the most aggressive, vital, and overlooked art movements since Pop Art? How do you simply paraphrase fifty years of undocumented art evolution into a concise explainable statement, while keeping a straight face, to an expert who might be a little suspicious?
This is what I told her: "I belong to a rather loose-knit group of artists that, because of a fifty-year dominance of abstract and conceptual art, have been left isolated from the more conventional academic mainstream. All of us, with few exceptions, function in the craftsmanship-based realm of representational art. To better understand this, you have to realize that we gain our source material and inspiration from some of the most illustrious, colorful and controversial influences and graphic traditions that one could possibly emerge from."
"We spawn from story illustration, comic book art, science fiction, movie poster art, motion picture production and effects, animation, music art and posters, psychedelic and punk rock art, hot rod and biker art, surfer, beach bum and skateboard graphics, graffiti art, tattoo art, pin-up art, pornography and myriad other commonplace egalitarian art forms. And all are simply dismissed and treated with condescension by the formal art authorities.
I ended by saying: "I am not alone. I stand with hundreds, if not thousands, of like-minded artists. And enough of us exist to justify our own personal periodical (Juxtapoz magazine), which stands third in all art magazine sales."
Nancy Moure treated my concerns with respect and added a thoughtful and seriously considered passage that took up more than a page and a half in her book. For her patience with my claims I can only offer her my utmost gratitude.
For a more in-depth look at this array of non-ratified and somewhat profane arts we have to understand a few facts. I'm not issuing blame and retribution, but, starting at the end of the Second World War, the international and American fine arts communities have intentionally striven to move the graphic and sculptural arts into the province of total non-objective abstraction and semi-abstract expression - and this backed up years later with minimalism and conceptual theory. This means essentially that for fifty years the world's de facto fine art power brokers have completely eliminated representational painting, drawing, and sculpture from the whole fine arts sphere, with a few rare exceptions such as kitsch pop art.
This is all well and good for the high society cognoscenti, except for two problems. To begin with, representational art as a voice and language dates back to early Paleolithic Europe, and has evolved intelligently at a consistently rapid pace, developing a more involved and intricate vernacular of visual communications right up to the middle of the twentieth century when, for some unknown reason, it was curtailed. This crucial form of graphic expression will inevitably find other forms of social contact, and will probably eventually eclipse any art mode that suppresses it.
The second problem stems from the fact that possibly seven or eight individuals in any group of a hundred have the capacity, dexterity and will to express themselves in a pictorial syntax. But simply relegating these few artists to the status of facile drones and sub-intellectuals with quaint drawing skills is not preparing oneself for the eventual jolt of having to deal with brilliant draftsmen who are gifted with the additional cerebral skills of abstract thought. It is good to keep in mind that "abstract" does not always mean sloppy.
For some time now, many talented and imaginative artists have had to make do with participating in the near arts - art without sanction. This might change. These denigrated forms of expression do have the seminal characteristic of becoming the primary arts. The modern use of cartoon imagery is a good example. Always encumbered with the stigma of humor, the abstract use of the cartoon in the future might not leave anybody laughing.
There are some interesting aspects to this lowbrow or sub-sacrosanct art. But one of the major drawbacks is the difficulty these forms of art encounter as sophisticated decorative appointments that harmoniously integrate into modern environments and architecture. The rich subject matter, however, with its endless forms of mental engagement, easily makes up for this art's distracting and intrusive character.
Here are a couple of examples of art beyond decoration. At first glance, carnival and sideshow banners from the 1880s through the 1950s appear to be nothing more than tawdry collectables. You can consider freak banners done in lurid bad taste as intending to entice simple people into giving up their hard-earned money to ogle at pathetically deformed souls who've been put on public display. But, if the onlooker has advanced observational skills, the span between the fraudulent sideshow advertisement and the actual subject makes any abstract art pale by comparison. "The Octopus Man" portrayed on spectacular outside banners was represented as a large green cephalopod. This figure is seen jumping on the beach accosting a beautiful maiden, while sailors who have come to save her are being strangled in its tentacles. After paying fifty cents the curiosity seeker can go inside the tent and discover that this fierce creature is, in reality, a 45-year-old shirtless man completely covered with horrible skin growths, something like a knobby rind on a squash. The payoff here is the enormous gap between fact and fiction - this is where the rapacious imagination resides.
Another case would be for science fiction. This genre starts off as a pastime for gullible people with beliefs in the future. Let's compare the 1939 Buck Rogers movie star, Buster Crabbe, to the more modern astronaut, John Glenn. They are the same person. Bad comic books, lurid pulp magazines and trashy B-movies of the `30s, `40s and '50s made space travel a desired reality. The realistic difference between Buster Crabbe and John Glenn is a much shorter jump of imagination than "The Octopus Man" and the image on his promotional banner.
This brings me to the conclusion that lowbrow art is, if nothing else, an honest celebration of runaway human thought processes.
- Robt. Williams, January 2004