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?

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 Dreamof 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.

The artist's explanation is equally bizarre: "A fragment of Gary Cooper's personality was lodged in a massive termite mound in rural Australia the exact instant his film Wings won the best picture Oscar in 1927, and there it exists to this day. This painting is my interpretation of this little-known yet historic event."

Other pictures feature such funky elements as a drunken Shriner riding a pink elephant, a two-headed hula dancer, a miniature Abraham Lincoln, cartoon cats with tattoos, winged eyeballs, and an elderly Olive Oyl as a fashion model. The smallest gallery downstairs is devoted to six works that focus on skull imagery.

Two artists merit a floor all to themselves: The three galleries upstairs showcase two dozen or so pieces by Skot Olsen and W. Kelley Lucas (art director for this paper), two Broward-based artists whose work pretty much runs the lowbrow gamut. Lucas has a knack for long, Daliesque titles that bear little reference to the content of the image. His The Unwitting Recipient of D. Julias' DNA and the Indistinguishable Difference Between Bedtime and Malaise (1995), for example, is a large acrylic on canvas that veers more sharply in the direction of abstraction than most lowbrow art.

But Lucas also has a mordantly funny side. In Ascension of the Potato's Wife (2000), he portrays a mourning Mr. Potato Head and four vegetable friends gathered around the grave of Mrs. Head, while her spirit, in the form of a winged cartoon of French fries, rises heavenward. And his Mother(1999) is an unsettling sick joke of a portrait consisting of a head with two large, unmatched eyeballs and, instead of a nose and mouth, a long, oozing vagina.

Olsen's pieces are typically more cluttered, more ambiguous, and often downright surreal. It's as if he crams as much pop culture as he can get his hands on into a blender and lets it spew out in weird new combinations. Thrills! Pills! And Grills! (1998) plays havoc with the story of Saint George and the dragon by putting a young, leather-clad Elvis on the back of an old, fat Elvis, confronting a dragon wearing a chef's hat and spewing pills from its mouth. The dragon's back is an open charcoal grill, and instead of a lance, the young Elvis wields a long spatula.

With The Facts of Life (1999), Olsen serves up a wry commentary on the misinformation that's usually part of a teenager's understanding of sex. A pimply boy with braces stands lost in a sea of garbled imagery, including a bee and a hummingbird copulating and various diagrams of the female reproductive system. Olsen also dabbles in disturbing religious imagery, as in Satan (1998), in which he juxtaposes the title figure, portrayed as a large, hideous goat man, with a cleric presiding over the executions of two women, one hanged, the other burning at the stake.

Olsen's artist's statement upstairs includes a good overview of much lowbrow art: "My artwork is a product of both horror and humor. For as long as I can remember, I have loved monsters. I don't mean the ones in movies so much, but the real ones. Huge, creeping shapes in deep oceans, predatory insects hunting with multiple eyes and fangs, escaped lunatics thirsty for blood.

"I view life through darkened glasses, not looking up at its smiling face, but rather, downward at its slimy underbelly."

Is the Art and Culture Center courting controversy with the funny but intentionally shocking works in this show? Probably. A lot of humorless people can't seem to resist getting offended. And those are exactly the people who should stay home when an exhibition like this comes to town.

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