Like the punk rock of the art world, the “lowbrow” painting movement hails from California’s rich hot-rod and skateboard culture, so-called because it circumvents the upscale museums, galleries and critics who traditionally set the fine-art agenda. But unlike punk, the revolutionary scene (alternately dubbed “pop surrealism”) is actually far more accessible than its “highbrow” competition, thanks to such art stars as Shepard Fairey, Ron English and Mark Ryden. In his wide-ranging but disappointingly dry docu, “New Brow: Contemporary Underground Art,” director Tanem Davidson makes a case for cultural legitimacy, reaching followers one self-promoted screening at a time.
Given its commitment to the popular arts, San Diego Comic-Con seemed a fitting platform to screen the near-final cut of Davidson’s film, though it also demonstrates the docu’s primary function as fan fodder. “New Brow” essentially plays like an extended promotional featurette for the various artists involved (many of whom have ties to the fields of comicbooks and animation), rather than a convincing argument against those who favor blue-chip conceptual or abstract work.
The pic begins with a brief history of the movement, profiling Robert Williams as the group’s putative godfather, before devolving into questions of definition that plague any artistic collective (in this case, do street art and pop surrealism even belong in the same category?). Williams apprenticed under custom-car artist (and Rat Fink creator) Ed Roth, expanding his mentor’s cartoonish style into giant, trippy canvases. In 1994, Williams co-founded Juxtapoz magazine to help spotlight his peers in the worlds of graffiti, psychedelic and pop art. Davidson presents Juxtapoz as the lowbrow bible, through which many of the scene’s emerging voices discovered kindred creative spirits, inspiring a series of gushy testimonials on behalf of the indie publication.
The helmer clearly hopes to serve the same role, celebrating the sort of work collectors might actually enjoy looking at. He never identifies or attacks outright those who steered art away from pretty pictures; nor does he explain how lowbrow is superior to the even-lower-brow Thomas Kinkade paintings and Hummel figurines that grace a million living rooms. Instead, “New Brow” favors such layperson-empowering soundbites as, “Sometimes I think people that aren’t involved in the arts think that there’s always more meaning to something than there really is because they’ve been told that they’re too stupid to understand it.”
At best, this labor or love presents a broad overview of the scene, providing a varied survey of artists whose uniting factor is a return to technical proficiency and a preference for narrative subject (or at least figurative ones), which they often deliver with a subversive, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. But the film lacks compelling characters. Davidson’s assembly feels heavy with talking heads (including major gallery owners and collectors, reinforcing the docu’s promotional, consumer-oriented vibe) but light on B-roll and examples of landmark work.
The pic features subchapters on such breakout lowbrow icons as English, Fairey, Camille Rose Garcia and Gary Baseman (with Ryden’s footage in the can but not yet incorporated into the version screened), bringing auds into their private workspaces. However (as Juxtapoz illustrates issue after issue), artists are difficult to interview and not necessarily the best spokesmen for their own talents.
Whereas Aaron Rose’s overlapping “Beautiful Losers” docu used Margaret Kilgallen’s premature passing as its emotional core, “New Brow” focuses on artists who’ve become famous in their lifetime, and argues that there are many more who deserve such recognition.
It’s a position considerably less entertaining than that of Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” which illustrated the value of skepticism when approaching pop art. Time will tell which of these visionaries were truly important, suggesting that “New Brow’s” value may be greater 10 or 20 years down the road, reflecting a time capsule of attitudes toward a scene that’s being rapidly embraced by curators and the public alike.