In the Land of Retinal Delights: Robert Williams and His Juxtapositions
In 2000, the late Robert Rosenblum staged a monumental exhibition titled 1900, accompanied by an equally monumental catalogue.
A survey of international art circa 1900, it was designed to show that the shape of art was still very much in play, that a lively variety of trends were afoot, and that the shape of art as art history would later define it was then far from obvious. 1900 gave no clues at all as to what would emerge in the pivotal years just prior to the First World War (a war that no one saw coming, incidentally; in 1900, recently resolved or ongoing colonial conflicts from Samoa to Morocco would have suggested the potential for a European war, but not the one that Europe got in 1914).
However, Rosenblum mischievously stacked the deck in his version of 1900; he picked the most resolved and stimulating work by the numerous now-forgotten artists who were winning international awards in 1900, and some of the worst work by those who a dozen years later would emerge as the pioneers and eventual icons of canonical twentieth century art.
Otis College of Art and Design gallery director Meg Linton has done something similar with In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor, the 2008 exhibition at Laguna Art Museum, and hence with the long-awaited 2009 catalogue of the same name published in association with Gingko Press, which reproduces most of the work from the show.
The exhibition takes its title from Robert Williams’ confrontational painting from 1968, a visually overcrowded rebuke to Marcel Duchamp and to the whole cerebral-conceptual approach to art. Coming out of the world of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth’s custom car shop and studio (“a hotbed for all sorts of irreverent, iconoclastic types,” as Laguna Art Museum director Bolton Colburn puts it), and emerging at the same time as the creators of the infamous Zap Comix, Williams championed a type of art that would eventually find its expression in his magazine, a publication he declared was meant to “stay below everyone’s dignity.”
There would be notorious and influential museum and gallery shows along the way to the birth of Juxtapoz in 1994. In 1987, Beyond Illustration: The New Pop, a portion of a category-breaking Tokyo museum exhibition, came to Otis Parsons College of Art and Design (which has since lost the “Parsons”). Featuring Robert Williams, Todd Schorr, Mark Mothersbaugh, Gary Panter and sixty-some others, it was an indication that the West Coast in particular was spawning a type of art that had little enough to do with the self-importance of the German return to figurative painting, or with Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger or Julian Schnabel, for that matter. Whether it was Anselm Kiefer’s darkly imagistic confrontation with history or Kruger’s sarcastic appropriation of old-school advertising photos, L.A.-and-environs was having none of it. (Cal Arts, of course, was a very different story, and yet a story that was conversant with word on the street alongside concept-laden theory—and it shows in the artists that Cal Arts turned out, then and now.)
In 1986, Billy Shire opened La Luz de Jesus Gallery of folk, fetish, and underground art on Melrose Avenue, and the rest is history. The appearance of Billy Shire Fine Arts in 2004 in Culver City certified the arrival of a movement that has acquired a permanent artworld place in tandem with what Shire calls his mission “to bring underground artists and counter culture to the masses”—and more importantly, to monied collectors.
Juxtapoz itself has evolved in pursuit of a diverse eclecticism, and Linton’s show is meant to show that the showy art that Juxtapoz has influenced is itself too diverse to be embraced by any single name or aesthetic school. But she mischievously chooses not to identify the superstars who appear alongside the ne’er-do-wells and the “mere illustrators,” and indeed in her selection it is impossible to sort out who is the sentimental illustrator, who the isolated self-taught visionary, and who the Whitney Biennial superstar. Who knew that Margaret Keane produced at least one painting that is scarier than many of the ones produced by her Pop Surrealist imitators?
Linton provides some of the key quotes from Williams’ many successive manifestoes: “Juxtapoz is made up of every loose nut and bolt that has fallen through the cracks of the formal art establishment, and if you look through the pages of this magazine you will find everything from sticker peddlers to cigarette-lighter salesmen, pin stripers to pornographers, high strung illustrators to wall defacers. What we are short on is conformity.” “It’s not a matter of good or bad. ‘Good or bad’ is over. It is now a matter of relative interests, the energy and pleasure (or pain) you get from interests relative to you. Whether you like it or not, we are all participants in a gaseous thought plasma of abstract modern art. How you react to it is all important, and you must understand if you get depressed over the nebulous lack of structure in the modern art world, you haven’t come to enjoy the freedoms that now exist in art. Just as it is now possible to declare body waste as art, there also exists a forum for very beautifully done meticulous works that can be free of otherwise liberal prejudices. All art is great—all art is shit. … Juxtapoz is simply trying to come up with art you won’t see in a more policed environment. We will deal with art that is considered meretricious, tawdry, sleazy, and commonly referred to by the name of the greatest architects of the 20th century, ‘Gaudy.’”
Linton wisely doesn’t put “[sic]” by the plural “architects” (which may not be Williams’ fault, since we find a reference to “Santa Moncia” in the catalogue) and lets the Anglicization of Gaudi for the sake of a pun slide by just as silently. Nor does she contextualize Williams’ frantic race to stay ahead of the curve of pleasurable offensiveness; for ever since the declaration of the age of pluralism in the 1970s, art has been engaged in a quest for high-style bad taste and trendiness, and the joke behind Manzoni’s canned excrement of the artist has long since been lost. For nearly two decades, critics and dealers and collectors have not only looked for gold in the outhouse, they have found it. And it has had genuine exchange value.
And Left Coast art led the way in that department. Systematic transgression has been the received piety of the world of art for so long that it took a Robert Williams to rouse protests against the gender-related political incorrectness of his paintings in the generally transgressive 1992 exhibition Helter Skelter: LA Art in the 1990s.
Perhaps (or perhaps not) Linton’s parentheses should be noted in her description of the magazine’s pages as “filled with strong art: figurative, narrative imagery teeming with references to cartoons, animation, television, hot rods, pulp fiction, pornography (primarily heterosexual), rock posters, album covers, pin striping, tattoos, science fiction, fantasy, graffiti, propaganda, advertising, film, toys, and other pop culture paraphernalia from the urban street and the suburban cul-de-sac.”
Linton’s checklist of her chosen “artisans” (her word choice) gathers up work by Kara Walker (a shout-out, please, to the regrettably defunct Atlanta College of Art), David Sandlin, Thomas Woodruff, Joel-Peter Witkin, Jeff Soto, Manuel Ocampo, Masami Teraoka, Sue Coe, Liza Lou, Laurie Hogin, Wangechi Mutu, Coop, Shag, Dalek, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Christina Vergano, Gajin Fujita, Margaret Kilgallen, Raymond Pettibon, Savage Pencil, Kenny Scharf, Andres Serrano (one of the few photographers in the show, along with Witkin), Enrique Chagoya, and among the hundred and twenty or so artists not yet named in this list, Kevin Ancell, represented by Aloha Oe’s “motorized cast resin figures [of hula dancers] with weapons.”
Going from Roth’s bloodshot-eye cartoon to Tiffany Bozic’s Walton-Ford-like Untitled (Egrets and Fox), one feels like playing “which of these do not belong to this group.” But in this case, the range of representational diversity is the family resemblance, to borrow Wittgenstein’s antique category.
But as with family gatherings that range from siblings to kissin’ cousins, these are artists that may or may not play well together. They reference popular culture of one century or another, but that means everything from naïve portraiture from the Spanish Colonial period to 1930s margarine ads to J. J. Audubon’s Birds of America. It is all vivid, it is all narrative, but it varies in intent and in complexity from passing silliness to provocative philosophizing.
Shepard Fairey is represented by a diptych obverse-and-reverse of a banknote, more conceptually convoluted than his posters and stencil art, even though it incorporates Andre the Giant and “Obey” into Two Sides of Capitalism: Good (Red), Bad (Green). Fairey’s version of street art is as Juxtapozable as it gets, but the look of this work makes it more juxtaposable with some of its visual neighbors.
And indeed, Linton acknowledges the epochal influence of Marcia Tucker’s 1978 show “Bad” Painting in terms of the collapsing of distinctions between high and low. And many of the artists in that exhibition produced work that would never be confused with Robert Williams’ version of Lowbrow, even though some of them would have fitted right into the pages of Juxtapoz if the magazine had existed then.
Just as canonical art covers an immense range of sensibility, global pop culture and the art that springs from it does the same. There are forces, and there are counterforces, all at play in the same field.
The Los Angeles artists included in the 1987 exhibition Bad Influences opined that unlike the Pop artists who only referred to popular culture, they themselves had emerged “FROM the popular culture,” and they declared their work “Anti-Vague, Anti-Elite, and Entertaining.” But not all of the work in In the Land of Retinal Delights fits that rubric, which makes Linton’s show vague, differently elite, and entertaining.
But that means we still have work to do, with permission to have fun to have while we are doing it.
February 8, 2009