Book Review: Experiencing ‘The Upset: Young Contemporary Art’
By Lorette C. Luzajic
“Curating is more about keeping artists out than it is about inviting them in,” reads the introduction to The Upset: Young Contemporary Art.
I’m grateful for those who invest in gallery space and take risks to get our stuff on the walls. I’m grateful to those who generously spend their fortunes so that the public can view Jackson Pollock, Titian, and Bill Traylor in museums. But I’ve long rejected the idea that a select academic elite of rich gallery owners has special visual powers missing in lesser mortals.
These artists move beyond tradition to sell wherever they find buyers. “Circumventing the gallery system requires an alternate source of revenue, meaning collaborations with brands and corporations,” the editors write. From posters to stickers to clothing lines to toys and back again, this world of art moves on and off of gallery walls, through the streets and into bedrooms, onto department store toy shelves, weaving from back alleys into society parlours with slippery ease.
The book’s rich texture and colourful scope and tangible heft is in itself a work of art; no, better- is a portable museum, a veritable smorgasbord of inspiring favourites and new discoveries. Encompassing work from underground, street, and illustration worlds, these spectacular glossy pages highlight what is loosely known as “lowbrow” art.
This is something of a misnomer, since the inventiveness and skill of the works under this umbrella are of unparalleled quality, but lowbrow differentiates from “highbrow” by using pop culture, fairy tales, comics, anime, contemporary gothic, manga, advert style, fantasy, futurism, dark art, cinema, branding, grafitti, youth culture, video games, cartoons, etc. As opposed to “fancy, sophisticated, elitist, or intellectual,” the editors explain.
The idea that until one is discovered by conventional tastemakers, one must suffer for “real” art is laughable to these bright artrepreneurs, whether they are collaborating with haute couture or selling posters to pals. Here I humbly quote my motto: “It’s not selling out. It’s selling.”
Given the creativity and ambition of these artists in empowering themselves through sales by any means necessary, it is disappointing to find predictable, easy themes of anti-capitalism by those basking in its freedoms and rewards. The editors note, “their defiance is revealed through raising awareness to the perils of gobalization, mass media and the establishment in general.”
The “perils of globalization” include the stunning achievement of the book itself, its attainability (a steal at $69.00, and $43.47 in the U.S. on Amazon), and its array of artists from West Germany, Scotland, Brazil, Israel, Iran, Canada, USA, Mexico, South Korea, Switzerland, Russia and beyond.
Referencing the spectacular work of Camille Rose Garcia, the text reads, “Garcia reveals a void, a deep sense of longing…she questions the excesses of capitalism that lead to environmental disasters…and society’s tendency to homogenize, leaving those who choose not to conform feeling sad, frustrated, and misunderstood.”
A curious but common stance of artists and intellectuals is the failure to recognize that it is capitalism’s historic and concurrent alternates that squash freedom of expression and personal liberty. Socialist systems squash, outlaw, punish, and erase, sometimes through execution. All societies tend to “homogenize.” Only societies with a modicum of economic and political freedom support individuality, subcultures, eccentricity- the right to “be yourself.”
David Kassan – Approaching Noice
Capitalism is the very system that put this book into my hand. It gives more artists more freedom to create more kinds of work than ever before.
Guerilla art scholar Camille Paglia chided us back in 1990’s Sexual Personae for condemning the very system that handed us the freedom to create on a silver platter. She is far too intelligent to try to slick over capitalism’s flaws, but understands that “fashionable disdain” for the system is hooey. “It is capitalism that has given me the leisure to sit at this desk writing this book,” she points out, listing other achievements we all take for granted- “paved roads, indoor plumbing, and washing machines to eyeglasses, antibiotics, disposable diapers…vegetables and tropical fruits heaped in snowbound cities…Capitalism is an art form, an Apollonian fabrication to rival nature. It is hypocritical for feminists and intellectuals to enjoy the pleasures and conveniences of capitalism while sneering at it…Everyone born into capitalism has incurred a debt to it.”
I love Garcia’s vivid, surrealist work. They are sublimely imaginative, invoking Miro, rich with a sense of the underwater, of stalactites and stalagmites. It’s the facile political stance that disappoints me. There is nothing wrong with protesting the environmental degradation from oil spills. But protesting big pharma is getting tired. Wouldn’t it be more radical if artists celebrated scientific progress, and were realistic about the inevitability of trial and error? Aren’t we thankful for contraceptives, painkillers, general anesthetic, and thyroid medication? It’s a popular neo-Marxist view to deride psychiatric medication as mind control – tell that to the countless people with schizophrenia whose inner mind no longer looks and feels like Garcia’s painted worlds.
Camille Rose Garcia – Royal Disorder Subterannean Invasion
Thankfully, art exists outside of critical discourse, and an audience can enjoy work apart from the intentions of an artist. Ms. Garcia’s creativity is powerful enough to transcend our opposing perspectives. That is the power of art.
By no means does every Upset artist politicize. One of the lynchpins of young contemporary is Mark Ryden, whose work famously graced Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album cover. Ryden’s work is more concerned with the spirit of objects rather than political ideals. His style merges an emulation of masters like Bouguereau with surrealist imagery of curiousity objects. “Things I find to be ‘strange’ I also often find to be elevating,” he wrote in an artist’s statement. Inspired by museums, natural history, flea markets, books, religious statues, Ryden says he believes that “to get ideas you have to nourish the spirit.”
Ray Caesar is often compared to Ryden because of kindred styles, though Caesar uses newer media like giclee print and digital ultrachrome instead of traditional oils. They have a shared penchant for what Caesar describes as “a certain underlying magical wonder in life.” He acknowledges that much of the past is rightfully discarded, but “we must at least recognize what we are losing, too.”
Ray Caesar – Descent
David Stoupakis also blends realism with the fantastical. But his imagination is much darker, with scenes that conjure the realm of horror movies and grim fairy tales. Then, at the other end of the spectrum entirely are David Kassan and Christoph Schmidberger. Both paint impossibly real portraits that are indistinguishable from photographs.
Jason McLean – Run to the East
From the patterned buoyancy of Colin Johnson’s work to the vast scale of fellow Canadian Jason McLean’s addictive graphics, to the disturbing masks in Mia Makila’s imagination, I can’t stop looking at this book. I’ve been poring over it, Googling the artists obsessively, while ignoring pressing life duties. Like the best books, it has opened windows to new experiences. Like the best art, it has made me look, compulsively, over and over again.
Lorette C. Luzajic is an independent artist and writer from Canada. She is a champion of freedom of expression, the most fundamental of human rights, and tithes ten percent of what she earns from art and book sales to advocacy. Visit her at www.ideafountain.ca.