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FDL Movie Night: New Brow: Contemporary Underground Art

Tanem Davidson’s New Brow: Contemporary Underground Art presents a through line for the development of this uniquely American genre of painting which burst out of Abstract Expressionism through the Pop Art’s screened realism into a chrome flecked, hyper-sexualized, fuel-injected dream state. The icons of childhood–Rat Fink, hot rods, movie monsters, robots, toys, cartoons–conjoin in transgressive, illicit intercourse with tikis, animals, dead presidents, dollar signs, slogans, guns, girls, raw meat, and bombs; characters live in their own universes fraught with action and symbols, caught in moments just before, just after Something Happened.

The movement’s impious padre, Robert Williams gives the history, moving from hot rod culture and underground comics to gallery walls and museum collections, with a magazine, Juxtapoz (published by a skateboarding conglomerate) and the soundtrack of punk rock punctuating every artist’s explanation for how and why.

This art movement, like Mailer’s underground river of the psyche

travels from the domain of sex through the deeps of memory and the dream, on out into the possible,

a river and unrest of discontent that flows to a sea of change.

It is a sexy movement, crude at times, bold and fierce, also voluptuous, sensual, tender; at times playing with Masters, at times masturbatory and overly self-referential, because, hey if a picture of a doll-faced gal with a steak sells, many will paint it. Political and social commentaries are wheat pasted on city walls and sold in galleries; expressions of angst and disillusion still harbor glimmers of hope beneath the layers of personalized mythologies.

Is this truly “low” art? Well, it’s no longer low priced, and certainly is well hung in galleries and museums. Calling it “low brow” defines this art as an antithesis to high brow, rather than letting it stand on its own. And what is “low” anyhow? Granted the subjects are often blue collar–cars and tits, tattoos and cartoons— but look at Caravaggio, Toulouse-Lautrec, Egon Schiele, George Grosz, their subjects and their acceptance now.

And shocking to the art establishment, not every artist has an MFA and some–oh noes!–come from commercial and comic book backgrounds (gasp!). But does this make it low? Does this movement’s start in gritty, piss-soaked galleries where paintings were swapped for drugs make it any less high art,  “good art”? Heck, yesterday at Artillery Magazine’s art debate, Robert Williams said

There is no bad art. Bad art is art that falls over and kills you. Or tries to give you a cyanide enema.

In New Brow, Tanem Davidson has put together an honest, warts and all look at the history of new West Coast art, full of history, excitement, insight and interviews with dozens of artists, collectors, and gallery owners.  It’s thrilling, provocative, smart and blunt, like the art it chronicles.

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.