Underground Art and Commerce

Book Review

  • The Graphic Art of the Underground, a Countercultural History

  • By Ian Lowey and Suzy Prince
  • 272 pages, 225 color illustrations
  • Published by Bloomsbury Visual Arts, London, 2014
  • $45.99 e-book and $40.00 hardback

Building on a series of 2012 lectures they gave at the Cornerhouse cinema and gallery in Manchester,1 in this volume Ian Lowey and Suzy Prince survey an assortment of rowdy art made from the early 1960s through 2008 by a selection of mostly British and American artists. The authors claim these unruly artists established spirited alternatives to the exclusivity of fine art and the banality of mainstream culture—hence the buzz words “underground” and “countercultural” in the title.

Five substantive chapters explore a visual lineage that begins with the California hot rod design, painting, graphics and commerce practiced by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Von Dutch and others. In the late 1950s, America—and especially Southern California—began a long and predominately male romance with power and petroleum. This found expression in Hollywood in Marlon Brando’s The Wild One and in James Dean’s death; in popular music (the Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coupe) and in the fiery graphics that exploded across the sides, hoods and trunks of customized cars, covers of hot rod magazines and aftermarket automobile merchandise.

Lowe and Prince argue that hot rod art provided both a contrast to, and stepping stone for, the art nouveau–inspired, mind-altering, drug-infused pleasures of psychedelic music posters, album covers, alternative newspapers and comix of the ’60s and ’70s. With a few tokes of a joint and a hit of Owsley acid, testosterone-saturated hot-rodder graphics were transformed into orgasmic patterns to advertise events at the Fillmore Auditorium and Avalon Ballroom a few hours to the north, just as the iconic escape represented by the motorcycle shifted from The Wild One (1953) to Easy Rider (1969).

The authors underscore a close bond between music and graphic arts as well as dynamic connections between British and American alternative cultures. Chapter highlights include Wes Wilson’s Alphonse Mucha–like designs (which are not, according to the artist, Mucha-derived), Martin Sharp’s cover for the Cream’s Disraeli Gears album and his emblematic image of Bob Dylan, and the posters Bonnie MacLean (a rare woman star in this firmament) designed for the Yardbirds, the Doors and others appearing at the Fillmore.

“Under Whose Thumb?” from OZ 37 (London: OZ Publications Ink Limited, 1971). University of Wollongong Library Historical & Cultural Collections, Keiraville, Australia.

Within this psychedelic haze, however, lay the seeds of punk. As the authors point out, by the late ’60s comix artists such as Robert Crumb penned a fevered rush of fear and violence. Pearce Marchbank’s cover art for the Australian-British 1960s alternative publication, Oz, revived the photomontage tactics of Hannah Hoch and John Heartfield and presaged the new, raw aggression of Punk graphics that spewed biting indictments of mainstream culture: the Queen, advertising erotica (see Jamie Reid’s Fuck Forever poster), middle-class domesticity and more. The authors steer the reader toward Punk zines that trafficked in raging, “in your face” graphics. The cover images from Sniffin Glue and other Rock’n’Roll Habits for a Bunch of Bleedin Idiots! (Mark Perry) and Ripped and Torn (Tony Dayton) combine the loose hand-lettering of a black Sharpie with low-resolution, monochromatic photographs lifted from magazines and newspapers. Gee Vaucher’s and Winston Smith’s photomontages add dramatic voice to punk nihilism and disdain for professionalism or design refinement. While punk attitudes eschewed training and embraced immediacy, Lowey and Prince also direct attention to the work of well-trained artists identified with punk, among them Derek Boshier, Peter Saville and Malcolm Garrett. Punk provided a conduit between “punk-art-mosh-pit” anarchy and fine art (see, for example, the careers of Richard Pettibon and Gary Panter). The chapter concludes with a look at erotica and the montaged imagery of the British feminist punk artist Linder Sterling. The melding of British and American punk is a recurrent theme in the chapter.

In spite of the book’s stated agenda of uncovering underground art, the final two chapters follow the footfall of the highly merchandized lowbrow and “pop surrealism” of artists such as Robert Williams. These elaborately detailed paintings gained recognition in the 1980s through then-emerging galleries like La Luz de Jesus in Los Angeles. This work was—and continues to be—passionately supported by commercial publications such as Juxtapoz and Hi Fructose. Despite the authors’ claim that these movements are “an irreverent antidote to the fine art world,” many of these artists and art works find a comfortable home there. Links to the mainstream art world are obvious: Grégoire Guillemin’s Lichtenstein spin-offs and Marion Peck’s fantastic-historicism that summons traces of Julie Heffernan’s paintings, for example. The punk-like specters of Mark Ryden, the big-eyed paintings of Emma Mount and the grisaille manic interiors of Laurie Lipton are as much at home in Art News as in Juxtapoz.

The final chapter charts the slippage of two-dimensional paintings into three-dimensional designer toys. British illustrator James Jarris’s molded toy of Rusty and Dworkin Dog, for instance, emulates the same duo found in his (and Russell Waterman’s) lowbrow graphic book, Vortigern’s Machine and the Great Age of Wisdom. Mostly made of plastic, these characters effortlessly slide off production lines as limited-edition playthings to trade in the collectibles marketplace. By the turn of the millennium, commercial manufacturers such as Kinderbot and Medicom were commissioning toys from artists, and “highbrow” artists such as Takashi Murakami joined in. Plastic toys mutated into fabric toys, then reverted to two dimensions again in the form of fabric and yarn pictures. Jenny Hart’s embroidery for an Iggy Pop concert softly reinvents the screenprint or letterpress gig poster and Erin M. Riley turns photo-based genre images into tapestries. Thus, the 50-year trajectory of underground art charted by the authors opens with male-dominated power-car culture and closes with traditionally feminine, domestic textile arts.

Jenny Hart, Iggy Pop from the Sublime Stitching series (2004), hand embroidery and sequins on cotton, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy the artist.

Jenny Hart, Iggy Pop from the Sublime Stitching series (2004), hand embroidery and sequins on cotton, 16 x 24 inches. Courtesy the artist.

The Graphic Art of the Underground increases our inventory of the artistic expressions often overlooked in art history and criticism. The several hundred images, spanning more than half a century, are a visual treat, but the difficulty of cross-referencing text and image, or locating consistent and accurate information about the art works is enough to provoke a litany of punk expletives. Simple information about the works is often missing or ill-informed—several images, for example, are captioned, “silk screened mini serigraphs”!—and others are 10 or 20 pages distant from their discussion in the text.

The historical synthesis from hot rod art to designer toys is provocative. But the focus on the American East Coast (actually New York), West Coast (for the most part Southern California and the Bay Area) and London (plus a little bit of Manchester) results in problematic gaps. The oversights from the United States alone are glaring: Chicago, home of The Seed, the Reader, the Monster Roster and the Hairy Who; Detroit’s Free Press; Austin’s “flat work” renaissance in concert with South by Southwest; as well as pan-U.S. 1960s–70s radical and left-wing political art. Though the authors of this apparently alternative history rail against the exclusivity of the “highbrow” art world, they seem to be using the same well-worn geocultural map.

Even more problematic is the muddy metric employed in their selective elevation of certain artists. They proclaim this or that artist as “underground” or “alternative” or “counter-cultural” or “subcultural”; terms they set in opposition to the despised “mainstream” or “mass culture” or “fine art world.” But they consistently measure the successes of these “alternative” arts in terms of their market adaptability. Yes, alternative markets are niche markets, but so are other art markets. The tenacious push of commoditization and marketability from custom car kits to Etsy suggests that “alternative” art is not a river cutting its own path but is simply one current in the main stream.

The authors use Ed “Big Daddy” Roth to open their story, and he stands as a paradigm of this underground post–World War II universe. Certainly a pioneer of custom car culture, he embodied an American aptitude for bootstrap financing, niche marketing and unflinching pursuit of commodity development. Roth’s ultimate conversion to Mormonism—a religion founded on American soil and possessing a keen grasp of manifest destiny—stands as the tell, revealing a spiritual destiny and marketing resolve that has cast him as a celestial custodian of “underground” capital incentive.

  1. The Cornerhouse subsequently merged with the Library Theater to form Home, a new organization for cinema, theater and the visual arts. []