Lowbrow, or lowbrow art, describes an underground visual art movement that arose in the Los Angeles, California, area in the late 1970s. It is a populist art movement with its cultural roots in underground comix, punk music, and hot-rod cultures of the street.
In an article in the February 2006 issue of his magazine Juxtapoz, Robert Williams took credit for originating the term “lowbrow art.” He stated that in 1979 Gilbert Shelton of the publisher Rip-Off Press decided to produce a book featuring Willams’ paintings. Williams said he decided to give the book the self-deprecating title, “The Lowbrow Art of Robt. Williams,”since no authorized art institution would recognize his type of art. “Lowbrow” was thus used by Williams in opposition to “highbrow.” He said the name then stuck, even though he feels it is inappropriate. Williams refers to the movement as “cartoon-tainted abstract surrealism.” Lately, Williams has begun referring to his own work as “Conceptual Realism.”
It is also often known by the name pop surrealism. Lowbrow art often has a sense of humor – sometimes the humor is gleeful, sometimes impish, and sometimes it is a sarcastic comment.
Museums, art critics, mainstream galleries, etc., have been uncertain as to the status of lowbrow in relation to the fine art world, and today it has been largely excluded – although this has not stopped some collectors from buying the works. Some art critics doubt that lowbrow is a “legitimate” art movement, and there is thus very little scholarly critical writing about it. The standard argument of critics is that critical writing arises naturally from within an art movement first, and then a wider circle of critics draws upon this writing to inform their own criticism. This apparent absence of internal critical writing may be because many lowbrow artists began their careers in fields not normally considered fine art, such as illustration, tattooing and comic books. Many lowbrow artists are self-taught, which further alienates them from the world of museum curators and art schools.
Many in the art world have deeper difficulties with lowbrow’s figurative focus, its cultivation of narrative, and its strong valuing of technical skill. All these aspects of art were deeply disparaged in the art schools and by curators and critics throughout the 1980s and 90s.
However, a number of artists who started their careers by showing in lowbrow galleries have gone on to show their work primarily in mainstream fine art galleries. Joe Coleman, Mark Ryden (from his 2007 ‘Tree Show’ exhibition), Robert Williams, Ciou, Manuel Ocampo, Georganne Deen, the Italian Marco Rea and the Clayton Brothers are examples.