Lowbrow art—also known as pop surrealism—refers to a contemporary visual art movement that often employs a humorously whimsical style and has roots in underground culture, comics and cartooning, tiki artistry, and punk. Though the first wave of the movement began with Robert Williams in Los Angeles in the 1960s, THE LIVES OF LOWBROW ARTISTS: Vol 1 focuses on artists from the second and third movements. Author Fritz Costa includes a brief preface that overviews the movement’s first iconic images of “hot rods and pin-up girls”, as well as its evolution to encompass several styles and a wide range of subjects. Costa asks, “What defines the Lowbrow art movement? What common belief do these artists hold dear and adhere to, and what are they trying to achieve with their work?” Although there have been several books surveying the overall history and landscape of the Lowbrow movement, along with books or documentaries on individual artists, no one to-date has published a collection that ties key artists’ work to their life stories. THE LIVES of LOWBROW ARTISTS seeks to fill that gap.
Each chapter chronicles defining moments of personal love, loss, and struggle interwoven with various artistic achievements for five artists: Josh Agle (SHAG), Tim Biskup, Miles Thompson, Derek Yaniger—who designed the book cover—and Brandi Milne. Costa interviewed all five in person and begins each chapter by describing his arrival to the artist’s chosen interview spot, characterizing the surroundings in which they feel most at home before diving into a more formal profile. Short, subtitled sections within each profile help define both life periods and artistic evolutions. By interspersing straightforward accounts with quotes from the artists themselves, Costa prioritizes the influence of emotional impacts on both their professional achievements and iconic works.
Recurring themes emerge, slowly providing an anecdotal response to Costa’s initial question. One universal conflict within the Lowbrow community appears to be finding harmony between craft and livelihood in a style that is largely written off within the fine arts world as purely commercial. Though all five artists received some kind of formal arts instruction, they each experienced complications or rejections that later defined their relationship to the arts world. Another common experience across profiles is the discovery of and fascination with tiki artistry, which is based in Polynesian culture but has also been morphed into a separate Americanized style. Costa briefly overviews the colonial roots of tiki culture but misses an opportunity here to contextualize its monumental influence on the Lowbrow art style, glossing over questions about cultural appropriation by white American artists as well as the debate between amplification vs. commodification. Although Costa’s focus on the artists’ connections to tiki—instead of an analysis of the culture itself—makes sense for readers somewhat familiar with tiki culture, it may confuse others who are learning about Lowbrow for the first time.
Otherwise, LIVES OF LOWBROW ARTISTS serves as a fascinating introduction to both the concept and key figures of the Lowbrow movement. Several times, the artists—especially SHAG and Tim Biskup—make cameos in each other’s profiles, providing encouragement or professional opportunities when they’re most needed. These moments best showcase what the Lowbrow community is all about: coming together to celebrate the risktakers behind this evolving, conglomerate, underappreciated artform.
Author Fritz Costa’s conversational storytelling brings life to biographic profiles of five Lowbrow artists in THE LIVES OF LOWBROW ARTISTS: Vol 1, illuminating their common philosophies while embracing deeply personal influences on their individual styles.
~Cameron Gillespie for IndieReader