The Graphic Art of the Underground: A Countercultural History by Ian Lowey & Suzy Prince (Bloomsbury / 2014) showcases the visual art and graphic design that has emanated from a series of iconoclastic, underground youth movements within Western pop culture since the 1950s, and which have challenged the perceived social and cultural complacency of the establishment. The book developed out of a series of lectures delivered by the authors at Manchester’s Cornerhouse arts centre, and takes the reader on a colourful and provocative journey through the art of Californian custom car decoration (KustomKulture), psychedelia, underground comix and countercultural magazines, punk graphics, Lowbrow and Pop Surrealist art, designer vinyl toys and indie crafting.
Pop will eat itself predicted the music critic David Quantick back in the 1980s And certainly, the popular culture that emerged out of the socially tumultuous decades that followed the second world war (the 1950s, 60s and 70s) continues not only to fascinate contemporary audiences, but continues to exert a profound influence on contemporary culture.
The book makes a clear connection between what may initially appear to be disparate strands of visual counterculture from the last six decades. The timing of its writing is no accident: in these times of economic uncertainty and bland global cultural commodification, there is renewed interest in cultural alternatives, both among those who were there the first time around as well as those of a new generation looking to draw inspiration from the past. Certainly, just as the current period of social turmoil that we are living through echoes those which previously spawned the hippie and punk movements in the late-60s and late-70s respectively, countercultural currents can be seen in evidence today – albeit in a more fragmented form. It can also be seen in many people’s rejection of the present in favour of a more certain past, as seen with the rise in popularity of all things vintage, and the burgeoning rockabilly scene.
Chapter 1: Speed Thrills
In studying KustomKulture, this chapter takes a look at custom cars as fantastical art objects in themselves (many of which were created as non-drivable ‘show cars’), and concentrates mainly on the visual art which began as decoration for these souped-up machines and which eventually developed into a distinct and immediately identifiable form of visual expression, known as Kustom Graphics.
This section concentrates primarily on the work of Kenneth Howard aka Von Dutch and Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth. Both were extremely colourful maverick figures whose work was feted respectively by Picasso and the writer, Tom Wolfe, but who rejected the overtures of the mainstream art world in favour of staying true to their blue-collar artisan roots.
Here you’ll also be introduced to Robert Williams, who began his career working for the aforementioned Ed Roth and who subsequently became a leading figure of the San Francisco-based underground comix scene and later the founding father of the West Coast ‘Lowbrow’ art movement.
Featuring art by: Vince Ray, Coop, Art Chantry, Chris Watson, Robert Williams, Ed Roth, House Industries, Stanley Mouse, Anthony Ausgang, Derek Yaniger, Isabel Samaras, Von Dutch
Chapter 2: Acid Dreams
This chapter looks at the mind-bending effects that LSD had on the visual art of the late-1960s and how the psychedelic underground became the first pop movement to evolve into a specifically graphic means of expression. And at how, in the words of the jazz musician and cultural critic George Melly, the rock concert posters created during this era made ‘most contemporary commercial advertising look both uninventive and sloppy.’
As well as focussing upon this hallucinatory art, this chapter also investigates the rise to prominence of underground comix and explores the colour-saturated visual aesthetic of such gleefully subversive counterculture magazines as Oz, International Times, Actuel etc, and the overtly political graphics of the anti-Vietnam war and Black Power movements.
Featuring art by: Robert Crumb, Martin Sharp, Aubrey Beardsley, Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, Michael McInnerney, Dudley Edwards, John Hurford, International Times, Pearce Marchbank, Wes Wilson, Alphonse Mucha, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Lee Conklin, Rick Griffin, Bonnie Maclean, Victor Moscoso, Randy Tuten, Mari Tepper, Robert Williams
Chapter 3: Revolt into Style
When Jamie Reid took a portrait of the queen and superimposed a safety pin through her bottom lip for the cover of ‘God Save the Queen’ by the Sex Pistols, he created one of the most iconic pop-cultural images of the late-20th Century. And in much the same way that the music of the Sex Pistols helped clear the way for a new generation of young musicians, Reid’s provocative cut-up anti-design ushered in a new wave of young graphic designers who used the unprecedented artistic freedom afforded them to pursue some bold adventures in visual communication.
So, as well as looking back at the influence of the avant-garde revolutionary group, the Situationist International, on Reid’s poster and record cover artwork for the Sex Pistols, this section also looks at the visual output of key figures such as Malcolm Garrett, Peter Saville, Neville Brody, Barney Bubbles and Linder Sterling, as well as the startling, politically-pointed, hyper realistic collages created by both Gee Vaucher for the anarcho-punk band, Crass.It also explores the work of Winston Smith whose politically-charged cut and paste visuals for the Dead Kennedys and other US West Coast punk bands, serve to highlight the importance of LA punk scene on the development of contemporary Lowbrow art.
Featuring art by: Jamie Reid, Barney Bubbles, Pearce Marchbank, Derek Boshier for the Clash, Peter Saville, Malcolm Garrett, Tony Drayton,Mark Perry of Sniffin’ Glue, Linder Sterling, Jon Savage, Cosey Fanni Tutti, Dave King, Gee Vaucher, Winston Smith, Raymond Pettibon, Savage Pencil, Gary Panter
Chapter 4: LA Lure: The weird and wonderful world of lowbrow art and pop surrealism
Having its origins in underground comix, punk and hot rod culture, what was previously a disparate and unfocused American West Coast alternative art scene was brought together under the umbrella term, ‘Lowbrow’ in 1979 by Robert Williams.
As well as being a term which reflects the art form’s rejection by the ‘highbrow’ fine art mainstream, ‘lowbrow’ also reflects the movement’s heavy referencing of trash consumer culture (tattoos, pulp paperback covers, pin-ups, horror films, cartoons, advertising icons etc).
This chapter looks at how Lowbrow and more latterly the distinct but related pop surrealism has developed from its late-70s formalisation into an increasingly popular international art movement which, in spite of the fact that some practitioners have found acceptance in the art mainstream, continues to flourish outside of established circles, with its own network of galleries worldwide.
Featuring art by: Tara Mcpherson, Joe Coleman, Steve Carsella, Mark Arminski, Lori Earley, Kenny Scharf, Mark Ryden, Junko Mizuno, Ron English, Marion Peck, Derek Yaniger, Gregoire Guillemin, Bob Dob, Alex Gross, Billy Chainsaw, Isabel Samaras, Emma Mount, Robert Williams, Robert Palacios, Kathie Olivas, Lisa Petrucci, Mitch O’Connell, Shag, Femke Hiemstra, Eric White, Laurie Lipton, Camille Rose Garcia, Catharyne Ward, Jeff Soto
Chapter 5: Something Old and Something New
This chapter examines how recently, increasing numbers of lowbrow artists, graphic designers and comic artists have looked to the Far East and found new inspiration in the form of Japanese ‘New Pop’ art and frequently bizarre ‘designer vinyl’ toys. It also looks at the emergence of the indie crafting movement, which feeds in to the designer toy market with the production of handmade plush and knitted dolls.
Drawing on the DIY ethos that was a key component of punk, this new wave of crafting has its roots in the American riot grrrl movement of the early-90s, which was centred around the Pacific North West towns and cities of Seattle, Portland and Olympia, and has subsequently grown internationally into a self-empowering anti-corporate movement for our times.
Featuring art by: Pete Fowler: Monsterism, Bounty Hunter, Margaret Kilgallen, James Jarvis, Michael Leavitt, Ron English, Kaws, Nathan Jurevicius, Dalek, Jon Burgerman, Lisa Petrucci, mr clement, TADO, Felt Mistress, James Ward (Jimbob), Zara Wood, Nikki McWilliams, Camille Rose Garcia, Erin M. Riley, Jenny Hart (Sublime Stitching), Naomi Ryder, Lauren O’Farrell, Knit the City, Kate Jenkins (Cardigan), Rob Ryan