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Art Beat


Emerging from underground


Within the realm of Jeff Jordan's fertile imagination, anything can happen. People might morph into reptiles or fish, genetically modified barnyard animals may tower over Middle Eastern architecture, or a '50s-era boy might even contemplate a silvery mermaid on the end of his fishing line. And, according to Jordan, even though he's had a tough time surviving as a local "underground" artist for the past 30 years, more and more people are beginning to appreciate his unique and peculiar imaginary by Jeff Jordan

When we met the other day to talk about his current show at HSU's First Street Gallery in Eureka (continuing through Nov. 2), Jordan arrived looking like a seasoned painter is supposed to look, gray-haired and rough around the edges, his clothes crusty with paint. He says even though he's 55, he feels like he's getting younger and better all the time, but no matter how much I begged, he wouldn't let me take his picture, insisting he didn't want to be recognized.

Still, Jordan appeared to relish the attention his art has been getting lately, telling me proudly that roughly 1,200 people attended the October Arts Alive! opening reception at First Street for his joint exhibition with his friend and fellow counterculture artist John Pound. He says he's particularly happy about the large percentage of young artists expressing an interest in his work these days, but that people "across the board" seem to be attending the exhibit in record numbers.

Now, if you look at it from a larger perspective, this surge of interest isn't at all surprising, since "underground art" has suddenly become the hottest thing around, on an international scale. Known by various names, including "underground" or "counterculture" art, or more currently, "Lowbrow Aesthetics," this genre has its roots in the pop culture of the 1960s, including comic books, B-movies, cartooart by Jeff Jordanns, Pop Art, California Funk, rock `n' roll, psychedelia, graffiti, tattoos and surf art.

[Above left, "Catch of the Day," and below "Big Mutant" art by Jeff Jordan.]

I'm pretty sure the whole movement originated in California as a West Coast nose-thumbing gesture in protest of East Coast "Highbrow Aesthetics," but don't quote me on it. At any rate, in the past few years "Lowbrow Aesthetics (LA)" has become a sizzling "new" art movement and is all the rage among hip young urban artists and a new breed of art collectors who are crowding into galleries and gobbling up the work like maniacs. These collectors include some pretty big names, like film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicholas Cage, Dennis Hopper and Crispin Glover, as well as South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.

This underground genre of art even has its own hip magazine (and a variety of spin-offs), San Francisco-based Art Juxtapoz, founded in 1994 by Zap Comics alumnus Robert Williams and hot rod artist Big Daddy Roth. And here's the really interesting part: Art Juxtapoz, the self-proclaimed "new art magazine for a new art movement," is apparently now capturing a larger audience than most of the "real" art magazines, according to an article in LA Weekly. It currently has the third largest circulation of any art magazine in the world, more than double that of Artforum. Juxtapoz has also become a place where underground artists can get more upscale illustration gigs, and "lowbrow aesthetics" have begun to creep into some surprising venues, such as The New Yorker and Time magazine, LA Weekly writes.

Jeff Jordan believes his work (more or less) fits the "underground" profile and says he's been reaping the benefits of this sudden respect for the genre, noting that his work has attracted the attention of new benefactors as well. "There's a whole new batch of collectors out there who are looking for things that are more about what the artist is really thinking about, instead of `Oh, there's another nice painting of Napa Valley,'" he says. "They're looking for work that's more conceptual."

I asked him to explain the conceptual basis of certain paintings in the show, but he was reluctant, saying he didn't want to give too much away. "The work operates on a lot of different levels. I want to confuse people, because if people are mystified, they're really considering what's going on in a painting. Mike Gallarda [a former Humboldt artist] always said `If I have to talk about it, I didn't paint it right.' To me that always said it the best."

Jordan says he sees his art as "totally classical," and mythologically oriented. I asked if "Big Mutant" (a painting featuring five G-men sneaking, well, a big red mutant into a desert silo marked "52"), was based on a myth.

"Area 52 is right next to area 51. Since 51 is where they keep all the aliens, 52 must be where they keep all the mutants, the cloning experiments that didn't quite succeed and didn't quite fail." Neither of us could remember whether Area 51 was in Roswell or another location in the New Mexico desert, but we agreed it would undoubtedly fall under the contemporary myth category.

Born and raised on the North Coast, Jordan says he can't imagine living anywhere else, since he's so deeply connected to the local art community. "It's all here," he says. "Anything you want to know about, there's somebody doing it. This is the center of a real interesting bunch of people and it's always been my good fortune to hook up with some really good posses."

Jordan's posses include many local artists with shared aesthetic sensibilities, including John Pound, Duane Flatmo (featured at Gallery Dog through October) and Jesse Crumb (son of Robert Crumb, of "Keep on Truckin'" fame).

"I'm also connected to a lot of youths," Jordan says. "Forest [Stearns] and the E2 [Empire Squared] gang, Jesse Wiedel and a lot of other great kids, just through the good fortune that they've come to my shows and responded to what I'm doing."

Of course, Jeff Jordan was producing art with "lowbrow aesthetics" before many of these younger artists were born. "I was one of those guys who wanted to paint, so I went out and bought paints and something to paint on, and before you know it, 30 years have gone by," Jordan says. "I stuck with it. There's nothing I want to do more."

Linda Mitchell can be reached via




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