Today’s avant-garde is not so new
Published in the Weekly Volcano, Oct 1, 2009
We were called hippies and yippies and freaks and weirdoes back in the 1960s, and there were artists who uniquely spoke for us in underground newspapers and comic books. Zap Comics, Robert Crumb, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, and the granddaddy of them all, Mad magazine. When Pop Art arrived on the scene with Warhol’s soup cans and Roy Lichtenstein’s comic book images, bad taste and blatantly commercial art was suddenly welcomed by the art establishment. Home base for a certain twist on Pop Art was Chicago, where various art groups emerged including The Hairy Who (Jim and Gladys Nutt and others), The Monster Roster (Leon Golub, Nancy Spero, H.C. Westerman and others), and The Chicago Imagists (Ed Paschke).
Over the past few years the art world has seen a massive influx of new art that to 20- and 30-year-olds looks to be radical, but which to me looks like a rehash of the Chicago art of the 1960s. Included among a lot of the new art is art inspired by Japanese anime and manga (both of which also have a long history), and a lot of graffiti art, which goes back to ancient Rome and Egypt — the point being that none of this stuff is really new. But if you haven’t seen much of the stuff that came earlier, I guess it’s new to you.
It reminds me of when I was teaching freshman drawing in college. Students showed me portfolios of drawings that they were extremely proud of and which they thought were very original. In style and subject matter, most of the drawings were things I had seen over and over, and I had a hard time trying to guide those students into doing more original and inventive work. I had to be careful not to bruise their fragile egos, because I knew they had worked hard on those drawings, and anytime an artist submits his work for review by a teacher or more experienced artist he is making himself very vulnerable. Besides which, I suspect they were often unconscious of their influences. They grew up reading graphic novels, and those images were lodged in their unconscious minds.
It was slightly more than 20 years ago that I taught those freshman classes, but I still see a lot of art that comes from the same places. About 90 percent of what was shown at the Helm was work of that nature. Not all. They showed works by some accomplished artists such as Ellen Ito, Nicholas Nyland and Chauney Peck. But for the most part I felt like what I was seeing there was work by artists who will probably be good 10 years from now. Much the same can be said for the art shown at the now defunct Black Front Gallery in Olympia.
From 15th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch to Gladys Nutt, who was truly innovative in the ’60s, to Seattle painter Joseph Park, whose comic-inspired images are truly original and beautifully executed, art that utilizes comic/surrealistic imagery for edgy commentary on political, social, sexual and identity issues have always provided great entertainment and insight; and even though way too much of this type art we see today is too easy and not really all that original, I’m thankful that we still have it. The Helm and Black Front are gone. Other similar galleries will open and go out of business, but we’ll be lucky to have them for however short a time.