BOINGBOING.NET, Interview by Kirsten Anderson, February 17, 2010
In hipster history, the 1990s saw a resurgence in kitschy countercultural pastimes like swing dancing, tattoo culture, and tiki/retro lounge. At the same time, an underground art movement associated with those outre interests and born in Southern California was also catapulted into view. Fueled by the Internet, a worldwide audience emerged for art that could have otherwise stayed firmly ensconced in the murky shadows of the art world and underground culture. This new art scene was tongue-in-cheekily referred to as "Lowbrow," and it championed a sense of working class ethics and the fetishizing of nostalgia and countercultural imagery in a cartoony, fun manner. Anthony Ausgang is celebrated as a pioneer of Lowbrow. His tripped-out, surrealistic narratives feature cartoon characters in exaggeratedly provocative situations. Today on Boing Boing, Ausgang debuts his newest painting, an album cover for psych-rock duo MGMT's new record Congratulations, to be released on April 13 on Columbia. Ausgang's next solo show is in November at Santa Monica's CoproGallery. Last weekend, I spoke with Ausgang about Lowbrow, Pop Surrealism, and the MGMT connection.
Anderson: You are one of the original "Lowbrow" guys and have watched the whole arc of this movement. What are your thoughts on how the scene has evolved?
Ausgang: Lowbrow Art was originally based on a wide assortment of aesthetic insurgencies, like the surf and hotrod subculture. Many of those cultural influences are now outdated and have been replaced by more recent stimulations. For example, the major influence that Saturday morning cartoons had on Lowbrow has been replaced by the new youth culture's video and computer games. There were also certain orphaned subcultures that were initially attracted to Lowbrow as a good place to enter the Fine Art world. As time passed some of these subcultures, like Graffiti, moved away from the Lowbrow and became their own art movements.
You were just in Rome for a big Pop Surrealist exhibition called "Apocalypse Wow." What was your impression of the art scene there?
The Pop Surrealism art scene in Rome was firmly based on the Graffiti aesthetic and there was plenty of that in the streets. The cars of the subway trains were almost all completely bombed with huge pieces and even Roman ruins had been hit up. I asked one "aerosol artist" if he had a felt any hesitation the first time he wrote on a wall that was 2500 years old. He said that the ruins had been there over 2000 years and his spray paint would only be there for about 70 so he didn't feel any remorse. But most interesting thing I heard was from BO 130 who said that most kids were sick of the adoration of ancient ruins and wanted to see new, contemporary art.
Are there any new artists or scene that's currently inspiring you?
Lowbrow and Pop Surrealism are art movements firmly based on recognizable imagery and comprehendible narratives. I think that certain aspects of abstract art are going to begin influencing this dogma and there will be a new type of aesthetic brinksmanship as artists skirt the edge between abstract and representational art.
How did you get hooked up with MGMT?
I met Andrew and Ben from MGMT through the experimental musician Sonic Boom of Spacemen 3 and Spectrum, for whom I had done album cover art in the past. MGMT was recording "Congratulations" at a mansion in Malibu so I went there a couple of times to hang out and watch the process unfold. Not being a musician I was occasionally left to my own devices so I would sit around and draw on pieces of paper then leave them there when I went home. I got along well with the band and gave them copies of my book, Vacation From Reality. Later, Josh Cheuse, the art director from Sony, contacted me once the recording was finished. The most important thing was that MGMT wanted the "look" of my style of painting and gave me only a few points that I had to hit. Naturally the process took some time but they were always cool with the criticisms. A lot of people who commission a painting only know what they don't want; fortunately MGMT knew what they wanted and let me do it my way.