Daniel Day Galley
Hearts O’Plenty Exhibition
One of the defining aspects of the end of modernism and the triumph of postmodernism is the absence of easily recognizable art movements. Even among individual artists a diversity of styles, techniques, and subject matter might make it difficult to distinguish any personal signature. Birmingham, Alabama based artist Marjorie Clark Boykin is no exception. Boykin’s work spans genres from animation to meticulous paper cutouts to more traditional easel painting. Her work is on display during February 2010 at Daniel Day gallery features five small paintings that fit into the emerging genre of lowbrow or what is sometimes called pop-surrealism. Arguably this is one of the few types of art being produced today that could be said to qualify as a movement similar to those of the modern era.
Originating in California and having strong Latino influence the lowbrow artists utilize pop culture subject matter and raise any number of commercial “icons” to a level of veneration. Because of the high degree of skill displayed by many of the lowbrow artists the term pop-surrealism is also applied to associate these artists with both the craftsmanship of the surrealist painters and the consumer-based subject matter of the pop artists. The term pop surrealism became widespread with the publication of Kirstien Anderson’s book of the same name. Boykin fits neatly into this “movement.” Her skill as a draftsman is apparent in the works on display at Daniel Day gallery in addition to her other pieces that are often found in various venues around the city and in publications or animation projects. Because lowbrow is a direct assault on “highbrow” art its champions tend to come from other pop media rather than traditional art journals and outlets. For instance the popular website boingboing.net is constantly featuring information about pop-surrealist gallery exhibitions.
The influence of underground comix and the punk rock aesthetic is apparent in Boykin’s work as it is in other artists who associate themselves with the lowbrow genre. Boykin freely acknowledges the influence that the founders of lowbrow art have had on her work. Robert Williams, founder of Juxtapose magazine, has had a tremendous influence in solidifying the genre, as have other artists who began their careers in the 1970s, such as Big Daddy Ross. Ross is known for his drawings of monsters in hotrods and has been instrumental in defining the aesthetic that has been adopted by subsequent artists. The Chicano lowrider car culture, tattoos, and cartoon, hotrod trading cards have helped established the pantheon of imagery that the lowbrow artists have adopted. Boykin observes that having this type of subject matter in a gallery changes the way the viewer regards the work. Notably the same image on a car or wall of an abandoned building would not receive the respect that it gains from its acceptance into the realm of high art by a gallery exhibition.
Unlike their pop predecessors the pop-surrealists tend to be more concerned with a polished, traditional painting technique. Here Boykin is no exception. The five pieces in the Hearts O’Plenty show are masterfully executed as anyone familiar with the artist’s work would have come to expect. One piece features a classic Tex Avery-style wolf, another shows a heart with wings, which is recognizable from the art of underground cartoonist Rick Griffin, and another depicts a Day of the Dead skeleton figure. The final two works depict a cheesecake, pinup girl reminiscent of classic tattoos and a heart with a sword through it. Some of the pop iconography adopted by Boykin is taken from nose cone art of American military aircraft. All of the paintings are complicated and have secondary subject matter including eight balls, black cats, playing cards, and pistols. How one regards imagery that is commonly mass-produced when it is singled out and carefully rendered on canvas is a primary statement associated with pop art. These ideas may or may not be continually explored by contemporary artists in the manner they were when Andy Warhol and his peers founded the original movement but Boykin, for one, is very interested in these issues.
One primary difference between today’s pop-surrealist artists and the earlier pop artists is the choice of subject matter. Television icons are present in both movements but the perception of television in the 21st century is dramatically different than it was in the 1960s. Today we tend to be more media savvy and are less likely to be victims of various messages coming at us from television and other forms of information. We are no longer as trusting as past generations in this concern. The original pop artists had a certain seriousness in their comments on contemporary society that is lacking in the lowbrow artists. The pop-surrealists tend to take consumer culture for granted.
One major difference between pop art and pop-surrealism is the inclusion of religious imagery in the works of many of the younger artists. Though this was common among the surrealists. Boykin refers to some of her iconography as lowbrow religious. The most apparent example of this in the Hearts O’Plenty works is her depiction of a skeleton figure in her piece titled M. Corazon. Corazon is Spanish for heart. The piece was created specifically for the Valentine’s exhibition at Daniel Day gallery. Much of Boykin’s work features imagery from the Day of the Dead, but it might also include Mexican wrestlers. The commercialization of religious traditions is acknowledged but not criticized by some pop surrealists. There doesn’t appear to be a judgment, but rather an acceptance of contemporary culture. In many cases, such as the modern celebration of the Day of the Dead in the United States, religious practice does seem to have a commercial aspect. The lowbrow artists accept this reality and embrace it as part of their worldview. Jesus and Mr. Spock inhabit the same pantheon for many of these artists. They reflect what we have become in the United States. As much influence as Mexico and Mexican artists have had on the pop-surrealist movement it is still primarily a product of the United States. Finally it should be noted that the lowbrow artists represent a separate school of thought apart from “mainstream” art. They have their own galleries and followings among people who are interested in having their art be entertaining. In Birmingham, Marjorie Clark Boykin is one of the most recognizable members of this movement, if it is fair to acknowledge lowbrow or pop surrealism as a true movement in the traditional sense at all.