The Graphic Art of the Underground
A Countercultural History
Ian Lowey & Suzy Prince
London: Bloomsbury, 2014
Hardcover. 272 p. ISBN 978-0857858184. £29.99
Reviewed by Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université François Rabelais – Tours
Suzy Prince and Ian Lowey are the publishers and editors of Nude, the captivating British alternative arts magazine. The magazine lasted ten years, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, looking at cultural products as varied as Steampunk, Alan Moore, Gaspar Noé, Dennis Cooper, Charles Burns, Sonic Youth or Tindersticks. In 2012 Prince and Lowey delivered a number of lectures at the Cornerhouse Cinema and Gallery in Manchester, dealing with visual arts and counterculture. This stimulating book is the result of those lectures. Suzy Prince also ran a gallery in London that was preoccupied with every possible alternative art form, including fashion, if memory serves me well.
The book is divided into five chapters:
Chapter 1 -
Remembrance of Finks Past: Kustom Kulture and Automotive Art
The first chapter is perhaps slightly less convincing than the rest of the book, possibly because even though it does deal with “disaffected young men” and the “emergence of an identifiable motor-obsessed subculture of outlaw petrol-heads for straight society to lose sleep over” , it is still largely about… well, cars. And although the collection of graphics that is offered in this chapter is impressive, although one is supposed to see that those customized automobiles and the visual and subcultural practices that go with them are somewhat underground and countercultural, one cannot help being less convinced of their transgressive and / or subversive power. One cannot help seeing them as somewhat too macho, besides. The reader will learn with interest, however, that “the silver Porsche 550 Spyder in which Dean died on his way to a race meeting had been customized by two of the giants of the custom scene,”  Dean Jeffries and George Barris, who also worked for Elvis Presley, Liberace, Cher, and Jayne Mansfield, who like James Dean died in a car crash. I vividly remember gaping at Elvis’s gold Cadillac, as customized by George Barris, when I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. This chapter contains three splendid full-page reproductions of works by Vince Ray, the renowned tattoo artist, complete with 1950s inspiration, motorcycles, Bettie-Page-like girls, skulls and snakes.
To begin their second chapter, the authors chose to very aptly quote jazzman George Melly, observing that “a curious alliance has been struck between teenagers, the hippies, commercial pop, and the young intellectuals” . The text is insightful and well-informed. This is obviously a coffee table book, but it does not, like so many of them, consist in beautiful reproductions framed by indifferent text. There is an actual discussion taking place between the plates. Melly, of course, was one of the first more or less “serious” writers to acknowledge that popular culture was worthy of analysis (independently from the Birmingham school, as it were). One of the volumes of his autobiography, Rum, Bum and Concertina (1977) remains hugely enjoyable. He is something of an authority on pop and camp. Yes, it is true, as is pointed out, that LP record sleeves and concert posters are very much where it all happened in the 1960s, on both sides of the Atlantic, “evidence of the kind of cultural cross-pollination, affected in the art schools of the nation” . This chapter deals with underground culture, psychedelic endeavors, “hallucinatory” art, countercultural magazines and comics, or indeed “comix,” such as those penned by the great Robert Crumb—taking in The Beatles, Cream, and Bob Dylan. The remarkable selection of art highlights its Art Nouveau influences.
The third chapter, concerned with punk graphics, should be read alongside Dick Hebdige’s The Meaning of Style (1979). It convincingly explores punk visuals, starting with, naturally, Jamie Reed. Anyone old enough to have been around when those Sex Pistols record sleeves blew up the mediasphere remembers the Jamie Reed aesthetics that heavily drew on the Situationists of the preceding decade (and this is in no way reproachful), even is s/he did no like the music. One of Reed’s celebrated “God Save the Queen” pieces gets the entirety of page 100, and even though this particular one would not have been everyone’s choice, it does remind the reader of the delicious frisson of lèse-majesté that was so pervasive back then, notably in June 1977 when the punks of London feted the Silver Jubilee in their own distinctive way. The chapter really incorporates the New Wave, straying well into the 1980s.
The fourth chapter, “LA Lure,” explores the not so well-known notion of that particular brand of “lowbrow art” that proudly screams its name. It really could be read as one with the fifth chapter, inasmuch as both deal with what some critics would unhesitatingly call postmodern art. The mostly English-speaking artists they feature, on the whole, care little about the distinctions between high and low, practice irony, and find their influences just about everywhere (pop art cleaned the air in the 1960s), including, evidently, comic books and the Asian continent. There are gems by the likes of Mark Ryden, Alex Gross, Isabel Samaras, Laurie Lipton, Lisa Petrucci, Pete Fowler, etc. Two pages in particular will delight the aficionados but perhaps even rally the novices: page 192, which boasts Lisa Petrucci’s glorious homage to John Waters and Divine, “Lil’ Ladies of Pink Flamingos” (2011), and page 258, which reproduces Jenny Hart’s “sublime stitching” of Dolly Parton—bringing us right back to the kitsch and/or camp excesses of Elvis and Liberace conjured up in the first chapter.
The Graphic Art of the Underground : A Countercultural History will be a welcome addition to the library of the reader’s university, as well as the coffee table of her/his lounge. It is part of the Visual Arts collection of Bloomsbury, which has already graced the arts sections of bookstores with highly interesting books such as Alexander McQueen : Genius of a Generation (2010), Elizabeth Taylor : Her Life in Style (2011), Lady Gaga Style Bible (2011), David Bowie Style (2012), and Japanese Street Style (2012).
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