Lowbrow Raises an Eyebrow

"Lowbrow Art: Up From the Underground"

Check your sense of seriousness at the door -- and your sense of moral outrage, too, for that matter -- before entering "Lowbrow Art: Up From the Underground," the gleefully subversive show now at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. Although there's probably not something to offend everyone, there's certainly enough to raise hackles in many quarters.

Take Anthony Ausgang's Why Walk When You Can Drive? (1999), for instance. It's an acrylic on canvas with a small, cartoonish Jesus trudging along a road carrying his cross. In the background there's a flashy car customized with flame stripes, while a few feet behind Jesus stands a tall rabbit a bit reminiscent of the very early Bugs Bunny, holding out the keys to the car. In the middle of the sky above, a scowling cat with wings extends his middle finger toward the forlorn Jesus.

If the image alone isn't enough to scandalize the sensitive, consider the artist's commentary posted next to the painting: "A lot of Christian guilt can be traced to the death of poor ol' Jesus. It's a pretty awful thing to have to walk across town to your own execution, especially if you have to lug a big wooden beam on your bleeding shoulders. Maybe the Christians wouldn't feel so bad if Jesus could have driven to Calvary in a nice flamed-out Pontiac; seems like the Holy Father could have given his only Son a car on his 18th birthday. But then one of the Stations of the Cross would have been a GAS station!"

Anthony Ausgang's devilishly irreverent Why Walk When You Can Drive?
Anthony Ausgang's devilishly irreverent Why Walk When You Can Drive?


on display through April 16
Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood, 954-921-3274

Similar shock tactics are evident in much of the work of the 31 artists in this exhibition. In Van Arno's Christ Bedazzles Ancient Americans: Book of Mormon (1998), a blond, anatomically correct nude Christ painted in sickly flesh tones and garish green and yellow looms in the sky above a family of terrified Toltec Indians. "I am in no way interested in belittling the beliefs of members of the Church [of Jesus Christ] of Latter-day Saints," Arno insists in his artist's statement. "This piece should be considered the Mormon equivalent of Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece."

Arno isn't the only artist here to link his imagery to that of more-traditional painters. Working with acrylic and enamel applied to TV trays, Isabel Samaras re-creates classic paintings but inserts characters from television in place of the originals. Bacchus Boy Wonder (1999) replaces the title figure of the 17th-century Caravaggio painting Bacchus with Batman's famous sidekick, while The Fall (Jaime and Steve) (1996) transforms the Adam and Eve of a Rubens painting into Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner as TV's Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman.

For Dejeuner (1996), Samaras cribs from Manet's landmark Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (1861-63), with a nude Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie lounging on the grass with her fellow players. And in her most ambitious (and wittiest) recasting of a classic, Raft of the Minnow (1996), Samaras copies the dramatic Géricault painting The Raft of the Medusa (1819) and peoples it with the cast of Gilligan's Island.

The influence of pop culture permeates the pictures here, as curator Laurence Pamer points out in a short, useful essay that's both in the exhibition brochure and posted at the entrance to the show. Pamer, who also provides excellent information panels for most of the individual works, tries to pin down a definition for lowbrow art and even polls some of the artists included in the show, only to conclude that the art and artists are much too elusive to characterize except in the most general terms. One artist, Mark Ryden, dismisses the lowbrow label and sums up the art to which it's applied as "a response to the painfully boring abstract and conceptual art that is devoid of thought-provoking imagery and has been the status quo for much too long."

Hence the offbeat subject matter that fascinates so many so-called lowbrow artists. Customized hot rods and motorcycles turn up here and there, and '60s pop icon Rat Fink puts in appearances, not only in the work of his creator, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth but also in a piece by R.K. Sloane, a Roth protégé. Kevin Ancell's Terrible Tiki Tales (1998), an acrylic on wood, features imagery straight from the covers of the paperback pulp fiction novels of the '40s and '50s, with a scantily clad woman being abducted by a tiki mask while a bound and gagged man looks on helplessly.

Mark Ryden injects religion into pop culture iconography. His Saint Barbie (1994) is a demented tribute to the enduringly popular doll, who hovers in the sky above a tearful little blond girl who kneels and clasps her hands in devotion. A butterfly with a man's head flutters by in the upper right corner, while the lower left corner is home to a large flower blossom with an eye at its center.

Hollywood imagery also shows up. A snarling Bride of Frankenstein in horrific closeup is at the center of Heavy Date (1999), an acrylic by an artist identified only as XNO. And the wonderfully surreal acrylic Young Gary Cooper in Termite Mound with Post-ItTM (1998), by Eric White, portrays just what the title indicates: a gaunt, morose-looking Coop wearing high purple boots, blue trousers, and a green RAF jacket, holding a square of yellow paper in one of his oversize hands as he sits inside a termite mound, surrounded by a dozen or so of the insects.

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