Laguna Art Museum's 'In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor' Satisfies Lowbrow Needs

What're you staring at?
Mark Ryden's The Creatrix, 2005, oil on canvas

Retinal Probing
Weekends were made for lowbrow

The new show at the Laguna Art Museum is not just an art exhibit; it’s a reason to live. Seriously, if you’ve been contemplating suicide, “In the Land of Retinal Delights: The Juxtapoz Factor” is a very good reason to reconsider. At the very least, postpone your plans to jump off a bridge until after you’ve had a chance to make it to this thing. That way, when your life flashes before your eyes as you plummet toward the jagged rocks below, you’ll get to enjoy flashes of artists such as R. Crumb, Mark Ryden and Elizabeth McGrath. Believe me, there are worse ways to go.

Many art movements have taken their names from disparaging remarks made by critics. The French critic Louis Vauxcelles coined the phrases “Fauvism” and “Cubism,” only to see them embraced by the very people he’d meant to insult. But “lowbrow art”—that is, the stuff featured in the glossy pages of the magazine Juxtapoz—is the only art movement I can think of offhand that got its name from the artists insulting themselves. Admittedly, the term “lowbrow” is not entirely inappropriate; many artists of the lowbrow movement paint serial killers and evil clowns, beloved TV icons and sci-fi vixens, busted old toys and circus freaks. Some of them actually paint on black velvet. But the term is also defensive and sarcastic; there is nothing stupid about the crowded, lush canvases of Mark Ryden, with his eerie, big-eyed, hydrocephalic Lolitas cavorting with tiny Abe Lincolns surrounded by all sorts of baffling, vaguely Masonic objects. You could spend all day puzzling over one Elizabeth McGrath piece, still finding new details lurking behind her grotesque little beasties.

If anything, this show of “lowbrow” art is actually a bit much for your brain. Wall after wall is covered with complicated, brain-straining art, each work boasting obsessive craftsmanship and all sorts of weird, personal symbolism. There are approximately 150 artists on display here, all vying for your attention. Try to take it in all at once, and you’ll leave with your eyes so bugged-out and your skull so swollen you’ll look like one of Ryden’s girls.

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For artists purporting to work within a single movement, there is amazing variety among the lowbrowists. Chris Mars, who first made his name as the drummer in the Replacements, paints dark, twisted nightmarescapes that look like stuff Pinhead from Hellraiser would paint to relax after a day of flaying the damned. (That’s meant as a compliment.) Anthony Ausgang specializes in old-timey cartoon characters twisted into psychedelic lumps, like Saturday-morning cartoons on acid—a kind of Electric Looneytunesland. Robert Williams, the founder of Juxtapoz and a kind of belligerent pope to the lowbrow movement, has spent the past few decades cramming his canvases with carefully crafted craziness, and when we critics take a crack at characterizing his colorful concepts, it leaves us so confounded that some of us resort to a bunch of really lame alliteration. Hey, you try analyzing “In the Land of Retinal Delights,” the Williams piece that gives this show its name. The man aims to blow minds, and the minds, he does blow them good.

Jesus, all that, and we still haven’t even gotten around to girly-creepy/creepy-girly OC native Camille Rose Garcia, or R. Crumb. Crumb has become something of a national treasure at this point. Ryden’s work is near and dear to weirdoes everywhere. His giant goddess-like Creatrix would be an epic at any size, but presented on a canvas that’s seemingly as humongous as an IMAX screen, she’s truly worthy of worship. This show even offers the chance to get up close and personal with the work of Henry Darger, the troubled and reclusive Chicago janitor who has become a posthumous art-world superstar for his epic graphic novel about the great war between an army of little girls and the sinister Glandelians. Darger died penniless and lonesome. What would the poor old guy have made of his inclusion here? It’s possible he would’ve been horrified to be enshrined with this crowd of tattooed women and men with troubling facial hair . . . or maybe he would’ve been glad to finally find a home among a family of happy freaks who would be glad to claim him as one of their own.

“In the Land of Retinal Delights: the Juxtapoz Factor” at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971; Call for hours. Through Oct. 5.

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