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Nashville Scene Dirty Pictures

By Grant Alden

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  Painted into a corner by modern art's many movements, members of the avant garde in Los Angeles and elsewhere have spent much of the '90s fashioning a post-pop aesthetic best described as cartoon surrealism. Works by six of these young lions--Anthony Ausgang, Todd Schorr, Kathy Staico Schorr, and Mark Ryden, plus Bowling Green's C.J. Hurley--are currently on display at the American Pop Culture Gallery in a show titled "Low-Brow Art."

The exhibit is a riot of color and a frolic of figures--part caricature, part graffiti, all cultural commentary. It should prove a revelation to those who haven't yet stumbled upon Juxtapoz, the movement's scrappy journal. Cartoon surrealists, see, have rediscovered the craft of drawing. Their lineage traces back to the custom car culture of the late '50s and '60s, when legends like Ed "Big Daddy" Roth ("Rat Fink") and the late Von Dutch (a crank of the first order, and the first man to put a design on a T-shirt) began transforming automobiles into post-moderne sculptures. That milieu connects directly to the underground cartoons of the '60s, which gave rise to the cartoon-surrealists' godfather, Robert Williams, he of the one-haired brush and the long, written explanations. Williams' huge, obsessive canvases remain an overwhelming presence: He now has a waiting list for paintings that would take two lifetimes to execute, and he has spawned an untidy school newly loosed to the oddly radical notion that every picture might tell a story.

Anthony Ausgang tells stories with the glee of a precocious 15-year-old. Or, to put it another way, he's big on dismemberment and fornicating critters. His colors are stolen from a graffiti artist's palette, while his characters have a round, glistening form reminiscent of vintage Warner Bros. cartoons. "While the Owners Are Away," the best of his pieces here, is a bright one-panel cartoon depicting two cats screwing while a third watches in horror through the bedroom window. Read into it what you will, just don't confuse it with a morality play, for Ausgang's delight is palpable.

An adjacent piece, in which Ausgang has, um, rehabilitated a thrift-shop painting, is almost as provocative. "A Day in the Park" amends a bad French impressionist knock-off of a couple cuddling on a park bench by placing two long-limbed cartoon dogs at the other end of the bench; one of them is smoking a post-coital cigarette.

Kathy Staico Schorr's principal entry is an homage to circus sideshow traditions titled "Snake Charmer." It is a faithful recreation, down to the brushwork and the meticulously accurate color choices. It is also a curiously flat piece, compelling only for its verisimilitude, particularly in comparison to the layers of implication present in all the other works on display.

By contrast, Mark Ryden more explicitly chases fixed ideas. He merges commercial iconography with the soft, pastel tones of a Victorian children's book, all with a lotus-eater's logic. "Dead Character Trademarks," for example, has for its central image a crowded dinghy with Jesus in the prow, Bob's Big Boy aft, and a host of all-but-forgotten advertising figures in between.

On the edge "The Stage Diver," by Anthony Ausgang, an L.A. artist whose work draws on graffiti art, Warner Bros. cartoons, and underground comix

Both Ryden and Todd Schorr have sent gicle prints, a new printing method in which inkjets infuse paper with color. The hues are, in both cases, gloriously rich, though the process casts an eerily precise impersonality on the work. In any event, Schorr is the painter here most clearly in the thrall of Robert Williams. "Zeppelin Flamb" is, if nothing else, a stylistic tour-de-force: The left side of the canvas is drawn from the palette and brushwork of his wife's sideshow banner, while an almost airbrushed zeppelin burns in the sky to the right, beneath which an ebullient, Roth-like cartoon bursts from the canvas. It's not entirely clear, though, what Schorr is after here--whether he wishes to be more than decorative and startling.

Pragmatic about showing at a new gallery in an untested market (and selling well enough that they haven't much of a backlog to draw upon), none of the L.A. artists sent their best works. These aren't career pieces, just representative samples, and there's nothing wrong with that.

C.J. Hurley, described by gallery director and show curator Jessica Mashburn as a twentysomething Zen Buddhist, is altogether a different matter. The Kentucky painter's work fits naturally into the sensibility of the Angelenos, yet his pieces--some several years old--are vastly more ambitious. The artist's statement argues that Hurley means to provoke discussion of gender issues and mythological archetypes, a vastly different agenda from, say, Ausgang's. He pursues this goal by fusing the color and sensibility of 19th-century Japanese wood-block prints to contemporary manga (Japanese pulp comics) and then mixing in ancient Mexican figures. Hurley's best paintings are multimedia offerings with plastic or metal adornments set into the canvas to accompany the robots he often uses as representations of the male figure. It is an ambitious and technically exacting body of work, and it's the star of the show.

"Low-Brow Art," its curator says, is meant to suggest part of the artistic continuum that the American Pop Culture Gallery will explore in its upcoming exhibits. Though only a few pieces are on display at any given point, gallery owner Alan Snetman and an unnamed partner possess an enormous collection of American illustrations. The works date as far back as the 1920s, and they range from pulp fiction and Western novel covers to pinups to illustrations that might have appeared in Collier's. It's an amazing collection, catholic in its breadth, and an explicit reminder of the tension between fine art and public appetites.

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