By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2010; E03
Mediocrity is a category of human creativity, just like any other. It has its own dynamic, its own characteristic quirks and identifying marks. In the arts, mediocrity often tells us more about the artist's desire to be heard than any message he or she may have. In many cases, it is loud -- straining to stand out, to break through the noise, to compel your attention. And just as often, it reveals the artist's fundamental misapprehension about what is interesting: stories that ramble, music that is repetitive, imagery that is derivative, theater that wallows in the extremes of emotional agony. It is possible to be original and mediocre at the same time, if you are sufficiently committed to creating things that don't matter to anyone besides yourself.
Critics generally organize their lives to avoid mediocrity, in part because there is so much of it, but mainly because it forces them to write with a negativity that alienates readers. The distinction between amateur and professional broadly sorts the world of artistic creativity, and helps the critic forgo saying mean things about work that is earnest, honest and a credit to the maker's ambition if not his innate talent or discipline.
But the term "underground" messes with the old division between amateur and professional. Underground artists may well earn a living, or a good part of a living, from making underground art, which means they aren't, strictly speaking, amateurs. They are also working in opposition to what they perceive as the professional art world, even if you can detect the powerful presence of envy and desire for entry.
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The artists exhibiting at a massive show called "G40: The Summit," sprawling over five floors and 75,000 square feet of an old office building in Crystal City, are loosely called "New Brow." The evolution of that term is telling. Once known as Lowbrow, the movement -- which draws on graffiti, cartoons, manga and street culture -- has evolved a sense of self-respect and mission. Lowbrow sounds pejorative and highbrow is the enemy. Thus New Brow, though some other more descriptive labels have been floated as well, including Pop Surrealism, which hits close to the mark.
The movement, which began loosely in California in the late 1970s, has grown to the point that it is now a scattered community, with hubs around the world, and the subject of a 2009 documentary, "New Brow: Contemporary Underground Art," which is still being screened at festivals and other small venues.
The exhibition, supported by the Crystal City Business Improvement District and the Vornado real estate company, is billed by the organizers as "an artistic interpretation of the G-20 political summit," but there's not much overtly political art in the exhibition. Instead, to make sense of this sprawling, proliferating, overabundance of material (with artists taking over office cubicles and sometimes painting on the walls), you find yourself simply making lists.
Little girls, skateboards, tattoos, spray paint, space aliens, nerves and viscera, blood, skin, sex, adolescence, urban grit, bleeding hearts, skull and bones, hybrid human-animal figures, comic books, garbage, tight clothes, creepy sexual scenes, foreign scripts.
The repetition of these themes is, at first, bewildering, then depressing. Asian girls with big eyes staring at you with dreamy and suggestive looks of desire are everywhere -- although curiously, this seems to be a predominantly male fixation. The hyper-sexualized pre-pubescence of this recurring figure is imploring, demanding, like the figure of an orphan in a melodrama. If mediocrity is defined in part by its insistence on being heard, she is the poster girl for the most basic of messages: Look at me.
It isn't just the subject matter that grows monotonous. Textures and techniques recur as well, almost always tending to emphasize a world of surfaces. The starkly representational style of tattoo art -- literally skin-deep -- carries over into painting and collage.
One artist is fixated on tattooed women's limbs, often to the point of ignoring heads and faces. Two different artists concentrate on cut-up and reassembled photographs, a process that leads them not away from, but always back to, the making of generically representational and intentionally pretty images. Others focus on the making of seemingly antique objects from contemporary materials, and one doesn't travel far through this exhibition without running into a mania for 1950s kitsch and advertising.
A jumble of meaningless visual data becomes a generic background idea in many works, assembled from pieces of foreign text, found images and photographs and busy geometric figures. And glossy finish is the order of the day, so much so that the figures in many images don't seem alive, but sealed in amber, just below the surface of the painting.
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The exciting thing about mediocre art, however, is that it is too much of the culture to get lost in any complicated or ironic games. The art on display at "G40" is interesting because it is symptomatic of our current moment -- the regression to the infantile, the return of old forms of power and thinking, an overwhelming nostalgia -- rather than critical of it.
The little Asian girl with big eyes? She's demanding to be heard, but she also asserts old-fashioned ideas about male dominance and misogyny. The sexuality in "G40" isn't transgressive, it's merely adolescent (and overwhelmingly heteronormative). The very idea of Pop Surrealism seems to boil down to a kind of perpetual visual adolescence, a dreamlike state of primitive sexual desire, associative thinking (and doodling), powerful narcissism and a general tolerance for low-grade obscurantism.
The very size of the show, the hundreds of artists represented, the massive footprint of the converted galleries, is meant to suggest openness, even as the exhibit bills itself as curated and selective. That's the fundamental tension in the New Brow movement, and in other cultural realms, especially new media. To be in opposition to the real art world, it must be democratic and inclusive. But to merit a label like New Brow, it must be seen as a coherent body of artists and work, in dialogue with itself. That doesn't happen. There are acres of repetition, but few works that can, through juxtaposition, be placed in meaningful communion with each other.
The name of the show, "G40," suggests a gathering of independent voices trying to do the basic work of diplomacy: to move from conflict to resolution on issues that matter. The problem with "G40" is that its voices aren't in conflict at all, and they fail to move to resolution on the main problem that haunts them: controlling emissions.
G40: The Summit
continues through March 31 at 223 23rd St., Arlington. Free. For a schedule, visit www.artwhino.com/g40.