Sep 14, 2011

TREND | Pop Surrealism

Mark Ryden, The Piano Player (#94), Oil on canvas, 20" x 30"
When I chose to post about a trend, I began with the images I have seen in the magazine Juxtapoz, and had no idea that they actually belonged to an art movement.  I thought that I would have to title my trend "Little Girls With Gigantic Heads and Sad Eyes."  Looking further into what I now know as Pop Surrealism, which is interchangeable to some art critics with the name Lowbrow, I discovered that Pop Surrealism came out of the underground movement in Los Angeles during the 1970s.  The underground movement began with artists such as  Robert Williams and has themes of illustrative techniques, unusual situations and humor.

The contemporary style of Pop Surrealism is mostly in painting, and the subject matter commonly has a theme involving children (mostly young girls), strange creatures and a mood of dark humor or sadness.  Mark Ryden seems to be a leader in this art movement, or at least the most popular Pop Surrealist artist.  Art critic Ken Johnson says of Mark Ryden's work, "such zany pictures hint at what creepy psychic stuff might pullulate beneath the sentimental, nostalgic, and naive surface of modern kitsch."  I asked myself what makes these Lowbrow paintings kitsch and I find that the meticulously painted images themselves are not kitsch, but the content draws from "low culture."  Art critic Manami Okazaki writes:
Ryden is still squarely at the forefront of the Lowbrow genre, a term that loosely refers to the Surrealist art movement that draws from accessible pop culture sources such as comics and rock'n'roll, and "low culture" such as tattooing and TV.  However, Ryden is among a group of artists who are able to straddle both sides of fence when it comes to "fine art" versus Lowbrow. 
 Each Pop Surrealist artist has their own recurring themes in their paintings. While Ryden uses repeat images of little big-headed waifs, Abraham Lincoln, religious iconography and blood, Marion Peck (and interestingly, Ryden's wife) has a similar style but with slightly different themes.
Marion Peck, Fuck You, Oil on canvas, 32" x 26"
Peck maintains the theme of children, large heads, and fantastical situations but also peppers her work with clowns and portraits of wall-eyed sitters. Although Pop Surrealism is illustrative in nature, the technical quality of the paintings is exquisite. The beautiful rendering of such strange images makes me, as a viewer,  question what information I'm supposed to gather from these images.  Another noted Pop Surrealist, Camille Rose Garcia, has a very different style from Ryden and Peck but still places sad young females in odd environments, interacting with creatures in a dark fantasy world.
Camille Rose Garcia, Cavern Swan Escape
Garcia's website describes the series that "Cavern Swan Escape" came from, Subterranean Death Clash, as:
Using narrative and fairytale structures, Camille Rose Garcia's latest work, Subterranean Death Clash, explores a futuristic scenario in which an overpopulated, overdeveloped world is forced to move underground.  The Royal Disorder, led by General Disorder and his army of poison bottles and castles, slash and burn their way through many different underworlds until they dig their way into the final cavern, the Land of the Dead.  There they battle cave swans and death armies in a final Subterranean Death Clash. 
Do all of these young, sad girls and children in a scary unpredictable environment symbolize an innocence lost?  Or is it a visual escape from a mundane world that we all live in? After viewing Pop Surrealism, I am always left a little entertained, a little concerned and highly confused.

-Syraya Horton


  1. Syraya,
    Why do you think these art critics have an aversion to just calling this "art" instead of "Lowbrow art"? I find this trend of artistic description to be ridiculous (I know that you as a reviewer aren't calling it Lowbrow; in fact, you seem to appreciate this art). Is it "Lowbrow" because it is kitschy? Is it "Lowbrow" because of its subject matter?
    I really want to know if critics are just finding a way to categorize this particular art trend or if these critics are devaluing it because they do not like the avenues through which the art is made popular.
    One critic, Manami Okazaki, you quote even lumps tattoos into "Lowbrow", which is interesting considering Okazaki wrote a book on Japanese tattoo work. So does Okazaki find the category "Lowbrow" an insult to the artist the way "Fine Art" is a compliment to the artist, or is he just categorizing it this way because other art critics do? This question has bothered me for a while in the context of comedians, some of which are considered "Lowbrow". In this context, I always find myself feeling like it's a criticism of the comedian...that they aren't as intellectually funny as some of their contemporaries. It's an ethnocentric argument...and I am curious as to your opinion on this matter in regards to your chosen trend.
    I find the Garcia piece to be especially interesting. I love the dark fantasy of it. Does this make me an idiot for liking Lowbrow art??? I hope not, because that would mean I would have to give back my "I'm With Stupid--->" t-shirt.
    ---Jonathan Peters

  2. Jonathan,
    From my understanding, the term "Lowbrow" was introduced by Robert Williams in his description of his own work, and the name stuck. I found that information here:

    In my personal opinion, there seem to be a few different reasons art critics and museums/institutions find this to be in a different class than high art. I think Lowbrow art is looked down upon because the artists are sometimes self-trained, so they did not go through the appropriate avenues like you said. They didn't play the game right, and maybe critics don't want to validate that kind of art because it's associated with seemingly low class activities such as the tattoo sub-culture. Or maybe they don't want to validate it because of its popularity with a younger following. Also, maybe it's just too "cool" for the serious art world, and I can say I didn't find much serious criticism or commentary from the artists about the content. I put that last descriptive quote from Camille Rose Garcia's website about her art in my post because it just seemed a bit ridiculous. Even if you were to try and interpret an overpopulated world moving underground, who is General Disorder and what does the Land of the Dead stand for? Why is that woman riding a weepy-eyed swan? There are so many questions you can ask about Pop Surrealist art, and the artists aren't really giving up any concrete answers. But they sure are strangely pretty and interesting images which are fetching high prices, so maybe someday they will be taken seriously by critics because of their monetary worth.

    -Syraya Horton