Cultural movements, as organic as they may seem, don’t just happen on their own. Especially so when it comes to art movements. There are catalysts involved. Art cannot breathe and flourish in a vacuum. Whether it’s been the Medici or Theo Van Gogh, art has always needed it’s patrons, it’s champions, it’s guardians of the flame. When we talk about the rise of lowbrow, underground art, or pop surrealism (nobody can really agree on what to call it), aside from the visionary artists themselves, there are two names that always come up. Billy Shire and Greg Escalante, through their respective galleries, publications, and groundbreaking shows, have both played huge roles in pushing this art form out of the margins and into the very fabric of our lives.
Escalante evolved from simply collecting art to publishing prints, to co-founding (with Robert Williams) the game-changing art magazine Juxtapoz, to opening (with Douglas Nason) one of the most influential galleries in Los Angeles, Copro Nason (now simply Copro). Greg Escalante (also known as Joe Copro) has had a hand in putting together some of the most memorable art exhibitions of the past twenty years, has catapulted countless artists to the forefront of our consciousness, and is widely regarded as one of the most important art collectors of our time. Naturally CARTWHEEL was eager to chat with him. Greg asked me to meet him at his office in Laguna Beach, where he trades bonds by day, presumably to support his unquenchable art habit. What follows is the conversation we had, over banana bread, while he occasionally snuck a peek at the Dow indexes.
Greg, as I was preparing for this, it occurred to me, for the first time, that Rick Griffin is the only artist whose work I’ve gotten a tattoo of (other than my own). Rick was kind of the beginning of your art journey, right?
Well, it’s just that I didn’t really know anything about art, and then I saw Griffin’s artwork in Surfer magazine, and it was really psychedelic and intriguing to me. I didn’t even know why. In a way it looked like it was predicting the future. It was just so different from what any other surf illustrator would do. Then, flash forward, he really kind of was predicting the future. It looked like maybe he was on LSD when he did the stuff, which made it really crazy. It turned out that he was (laughs). But that just gives you such a different portal to…what art can do. So, every month, when Surfer would come out, I’d just tear it open to see if there was a Rick Griffin in there. Back then you could send in $1.50 to the magazine and get this book called Man From Utopia. So I got the book, and I was expecting more cartoons like he did, but instead there were just super crazy, nightmarish, psychedelic illustrations that were just unbelievable.
Yeah, well what he did was he took this beautiful Cholo style graffiti that I would see at my junior high school, and it was scary, but beautiful at the same time. He was kind of combining that with this influence that he had from Rick Griffin, which was interesting since he wasn’t a surfer, but when he got his hands on some Surfer magazines from some relative or something, he just ate it up. He was also influenced by raku ceramics, and some of the smoky surfaces he got from that. When I first saw his stuff, I got it. I got that calligraphy, the ceramic look…and you have the cholo writing, so I just go ‘Wow! I know what this is. I like this guy’s stuff.’
So, you started collecting art and eventually began publishing prints. When you and Doug Nason combined publishing companies, how did that happen?
Right, well it was really not that big of a thing. We met by him buying a Robert Williams print from me that was called Snuff Fink. Robert introduced him to me, and he was saying that he really liked Ed Roth. In fact, he liked Roth more than I liked Roth, but I did like Roth. He wanted to meet Roth, you know, and I said ‘If you form a business relationship with Roth, you’ll really get to know him.’ So, he went and published a print with Roth, and he did his prints, and I did mine…but I didn’t want to do the accounting of it, stuff like that…and Doug wanted me to be his partner, and he’d do the accounting, so we just kind of merged.
Do you remember the first exhibit you and Doug put together? Was that at Bess Cutler?
I’m not sure what we did at Bess Cutler, or if that was even our first show. The one I remember the most, I remember we did a Von Dutch tribute show at La Luz De Jesus, after we did some kind of group show at Merry Karnowsky’s. I can’t remember what we did at Frame Shop, it might have been kind of like a Kustom Kulture show.
Yeah, well especially looking back on it, because we might do a show, a 20 years later tribute to Kustom Kulture, at the Huntington Beach Arts Center, but I don’t know if it will happen yet. It’s too early.
Well, the 20 year anniversary would be next year, so it’s coming up pretty quick.
I know. In the museum you need at least two or three years to set up. It’s a little messed up. Maybe it’s too soon to do it. There’s politics, they don’t have money, all this stuff.
So anyway, it felt…going there, and looking back, they had a car in the museum. They had ZZ Top’s car in the museum. They had all this crazy Von Dutch stuff that you’d never see in a museum. They had all these artists…like Jaime Hernandez, he didn’t even know why he was in the show because he’s not a car guy. But it’s like ‘Dude, you’re part of this movement, that could have nothing to do with cars, but you know, you’re just part of it. You’re part of this culture.’ Rick Griffin was in there a little bit. He was supposed to be one of the major guys, but his estate didn’t want him to be…they felt he could be ripped off and exploited. So, it was kind of weird. I mean, that brought in a lot more people. So it wasn’t really just Kustom Kulture, lowbrow, it wasn’t all about car guys. You know, it was just that’s what it’s about now, but there’s other, equal, even bigger things that it could be about. But it was just a new, anti-museum, non-boring art show, that finally gets its due.
How did the Tiki Art exhibit at HBAC in 1999 come together? (Editorial note: at about this point in the discussion I had shown Greg a photo of a black velvet Elvis that I own, and contend is the single worst black velvet painting ever made.)
I don’t really remember that one, but I was on the board there for a long time, and did a lot of shows there. I know we did the Leeteg black velvet show which was a super big show, and important to me, and it got written up. It got on NPR. It was in the Wall Street Journal. It got a lot of publicity. It was what I always liked about doing an art show in a museum, because I want to do art shows in a museum that should never be there. It should never happen. You should never have black velvet in a museum. (laughs) So, I want to give it its due. Especially when…well, there was a crazy story behind the whole thing, which was that this Edgar Leeteg…that one guy started the whole black velvet thing, and everything you saw, including your Elvis, it was all started by that one guy. I thought it was like a hundred guys. I didn’t think they could plug it to one guy in Tahiti, instead of like, twenty guys in Tijuana. So that was a cool show.
Yeah, he’s a great guy. He’s always helped with most any art show that we’ve ever come up with. Then we ran across this guy from Gingko that does a lot of art books. So we ended up doing some books with Gingko too.
Jeff Wasserman (printer) was a huge get for your prints. He was known for doing these High Art prints (Stella/Ruscha), so having him do those first Robert Williams prints for you was a big deal, no?
Yeah, he was receptive to it. He had hot rods, and he actually wanted to do it. He was a fan of Williams. But Williams said he doesn’t like him, he wouldn’t do any press. Doug wasn’t around at this point, so it was just me, and yeah, that was kind of a breakthrough for Williams, ‘cause he had these cheap posters that people put out. He didn’t have…he wasn’t ‘fine art’, and when he did this print, you had this fine art print, you know?
The Williams prints must have been kind of a nightmare for him. How do you do a Robert Williams serigraph in only four colors?!
Right, I think that’s what they tried to be, but from what I remember they did it in six, or seven, or eight, which still isn’t that much, but…because later, someone did a serigraph of Williams where there was a guy raising a square box around his head…that one had like 120 colors. That was the most expensive print. Yeah, that was the other extreme (laughs).
How many Williams’ pieces do you own?
Well, as far as the paintings, I owned at one time, I think, nine. One I donated to Laguna Art Museum, so it’s there.
When do you decide to sell a piece?
Well, I had to sell a bunch when I had a divorce (laughs). So, unfortunately those, you know, the ones that were easiest to sell were the Williams’. Which, you know, I don’t want to sell, but if I’ve had them like twenty years or more, I’ve definitely had them long enough. So, all my best stuff is the most sellable. You know, like maybe the best Griffins, the Williams, stuff like that.
The Big Daddy Roth factor can’t be underestimated. Do you see him as kind of the grandfather of the lowbrow movement?
Yeah, because he wasn’t trying to be a part of the art world, participate, or get into it. He just kind of got co-opted by these people, by a lot of Kustom Kulture that said ‘no, you’re art, you’re important’, things like that. People like Warhol on the east coast had The Factory, doing the multiple art, making all that, but Warhol was all about being an artist, making art and making money. Whereas Roth was all about having a factory, making art that wasn’t called art, his art on t-shirts, things kids liked.
Then some guy later said ‘Hey Roth, that’s art!’ because the artists that were in L.A. were influenced, for instance, by Finish Fetish, which was guys like Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin, maybe Ed Moses, all these other guys, and it was all about the car. The car was the hot rod, and the finish was all about Roth, Von Dutch, stuff like that. So, it’s kind of like Kustum Kulture came by and said…well, it’s not really that all these people were influenced by the Finish Fetish or that those were the greatest artists in L.A., but these are the guys that the Finish Fetish were influenced by, so they deserved their due. They deserved their day in the sun. So let’s throw them out there, and see how history perceives them.
I imagine that aspect must have appealed to Wasserman too, when you approached him, because he was a car collector.
Yeah, yeah, he had the hot rods, so he liked Williams. When I first talked to Wasserman, he said ‘Oh, Robert Williams! I’ve always wanted to do a print of his.’, because I was just a rabid fan of Williams, so I was trying to help get stuff that Williams said he wanted, and he wanted a high quality print. So Wasserman said ‘Yeah, I’ll do one. I just need one thing, a producer.’ I said ‘what’s a producer do?’ and he said ‘Oh, well they pay for the print.’ (laughs) So, that’s how I started my printing career.
I understand before you met Robert Williams, you were a little frightened of him, right?
Yeah, it was that thing were I really liked his art, but you know, its crazy stuff. All I wanted to know was how much it costs to buy a painting of his, and instead of a quote I got his phone number. So, I put it on my desk for about two weeks. Finally, I just called him back, and of course he was all nice…really nice. That was a great thing.
Do you remember the conversation you and Robert first had about starting Juxtapoz? Well it was Art Alternatives first, right?
Yeah, I remember the conversation. He said that some girl, who was like a fan of his who worked for this tattoo magazine, that was Outlaw Biker publications. Williams pitched her on an art magazine to take to her publishers…that was kind of like The Minotaur, out of Europe, which went out of business when World War II happened, and it was just the best art magazine that there was. Then we could put in all this cool art and Robert Williams would be the first one. So she did, and they said they’d do it. So, that was the story of Art Alternatives, and Williams put in all his friends for another issue or two, and then he was kind of out of people to recommend. But he knew that I knew all these other artists, and he didn’t want to start cold-calling artists. He’s not going to do that. So I found a bunch of artists, like Sandow Birk, and all these other ones…people I knew, and got them in there. Then, after just one or two issues, they said they were going to sell the magazine, unless we found a buyer for the magazine. So that whole thing would have been done after three or four issues. But then…I kind of remotely knew the guy who published Thrasher magazine. So, I went to him and told him all about the magazine, and he said if the numbers were accurate, he’d buy it. But we couldn’t work out a price. Fausto (Thrasher publisher) said it was worth $40, 000.00, and they said no, we want a million…which is what magazines always say, and then they go out of business, which is what they always do. So we started a new one, with Williams and Stecyk and all that. So, we still used Fausto, but just started a new one, Juxtapoz, under his Thrasher umbrella. That’s how it started.
Juxtapoz, having wide distribution, being readily available on newsstands, became the introduction to lowbrow for a lot of people. Not just as a movement, but as a term. Are you comfortable with the name “Lowbrow”?
I always thought it wasn’t the right name. I came up with my own name. Other people came up with their own name. Most people don’t like it, except for Shag. Shag likes it because…see, you get a new art movement, and it gets a name. It could be the right name. It could be the wrong name. But the important thing is it gets its own name, and then it loses the meaning of really what it stood for. The meaning of it changed, this certain type of art. So that was Williams’ term, and he doesn’t even like the name (laughs). When it first came out, I thought, well, it’s not really lowbrow. Lowbrow’s like low, like down low…and maybe some of it is, but really it’s like newbrow. It’s new thinking in the art world. That’s what it is. Now, I guess surrealism just has a better ring to it then lowbrow.
Touching back on Edgar Leeteg, are you still seeking out black velvet paintings?
(scoffs) I never collected black velvet paintings! Oh, I have some. No, my whole garage is filled with them. I mean yeah, but I’m not really collecting them, and I wasn’t really collecting them then. It was more that someone was giving them to me, from like somebodies mother that was going to garage sales (laughs).
Are you still on the board at Laguna Arts Museum?
No, but I am on the board at Grand Central Arts Center in Santa Ana. We’ve done a bunch of good shows there.
I want to get your thoughts on what I call the curse of Mark Ryden. There is an ever increasing, inescapable group of young artists painting the big eyed children…that Margaret Keane thing, popularized in the sixties, which Ryden took to new heights. It seems all the kids are doing it and it’s gotten…not just redundant, but frankly tiring and vapid.
(laughs) That would be a good one to get from Robert Williams!
Yeah, well, people like what they like. You know, you like one thing, so that’s what you do, and the majority of the people probably don’t like that. You know, a lot of them don’t, so they do the big eyed thing…and the big eyed thing is a novel, intriguing, attractive subject to paint, so…I guess I liked the big eyed thing a lot when I first saw it, then after a while I kind of got tired of it myself, because…I just remember some of the first ones I saw were like Frank Kozik doing them on rock posters, Coop doing them on a rock poster or something, and they were pretty funny, and then Mark Ryden had this completely, well-painted…it had this beautiful quality to it, but at a certain point, I guess it was easy to get tired of for me (laughs). When you see it all the time. It goes a lot in the decoration category. Like when you’re more interested in saying something, that’s less decorative than art.
With art such a huge part of your life, have you been inspired to create any of your own? Are you still making ceramics?
Not really, because I think when I did ceramics, it has that thing where it starts and it goes up, and you’re obsessed by it and that’s all you want to do, but mine was replaced by…by doing art shows. So, I feel like I’m doing art that way. I felt, where by being an art collector…I felt that there are a lot people making art, but not enough people collecting art. So, if I can be a collector, that’s helping the art scene, and if I could help make a show that was cool happen, that was helping the art scene.
Was there one particular moment in which you suddenly identified yourself as a collector?
Yeah, I started collecting and it was just like going into a department store and saying I’m not going to buy anything, and then you buy a pair of socks, then all of a sudden you’re buying a suit. Then all of a sudden you lose control. So, maybe one time it was when I went to this one art auction, and I bought more stuff than anyone else bought in the auction. I actually paid the highest price of anything anyone else bought. It wasn’t a big auction. It was just like a charity auction. Yeah, so I just started buying art and I liked it. Then, I just remember this one year I spent nearly all the money I’d made, on art. You can’t spend all your money on art because you’ve got to live, and pay bills and all that. When I didn’t have that, I would borrow money…and then I had to tone it down after that because I realized I couldn’t sustain that pace. Plus, I had kind of filled up a lot of walls and stuff, so that was the peak.
Growing up, did you collect anything…like comic books, or Matchbox cars?
Not any more than most. Not really. I didn’t collect comic books. I didn’t collect surfer magazines. I didn’t collect…but before collecting art, I did start buying vintage ties from the forties. So, that’s almost like art. You know, there’s art on them. You could wear them, they were pretty artsy, and that was okay, but then collecting art was way more expensive (laughs).
What’s the most recent art purchase you’ve made?
Hmmm…I should remember this stuff better. Oh, it was by Leslie Ditto, of Salvador Dali. Oh, and this piece by Hex, a graf pioneer. I was haunted by an old amazing Wizard of Oz piece from the late 80’s. Finally found Hex and scored this piece.
What advice would you give to beginning collectors?
Well, it’s always good to collect what you like because…at least you like it, and you paid for it. A lot of times you’re never going to sell it. It just depends, but actually the more money you spend… you’ve got to be concerned with ‘Will I be able to sell this?’ as part of a retirement. If you’ve got a bunch of unsellable stuff, when it’s all done, and you need to get rid of stuff, it’s not going to be as good as if you have this fortune in art…that you bought the right stuff. So if you’re not spending that much money, you can pretty much buy whatever you want, because you’re not worried about selling it. But if you’re spending a lot, then you’ve got to work towards making it like an investment.
The good investment thing…this could be a whole class, but obviously if you buy something that gets auctioned at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, or Bonham’s, then you’ve got something going because…like Banksy, he sells at Bonham’s, Chaz Bojorquez sells at Bonham’s. They just did a big street art auction, so a lot of the street art stuff, that just started, sells at those places, and there’ll be some ups and downs but they’re really not going to get any cheaper. So, that’s what you want. Plus if you bring in something that they’ve never auctioned before, they’ll tell you ‘We don’t have an audience, a following for this. We can’t even auction it.’ So, now you’ve got this art piece that you’ve got to go door to door to like…who knows how you sell it? You try to get the gallery that sold it to you to take it back and sell it? That’s a hard way to go. I don’t know how you sell it.
As with any investment you’re taking a risk too, right? You’re kind of betting on that artist.
Yeah, yeah…another thing I noticed is, if you go to the better galleries, usually they give you good advice on who to buy. Whereas if go to some new gallery, that has new people, it’s way riskier.
How do you maintain your collection? Do you keep a detailed inventory?
Uh, no…I just put it up and hope for the best. Sometimes I lose pieces.
Do you have all your art up, or do you have some in storage?
No, I never wanted to put stuff in storage because it didn’t make sense to me, to do that to the art. But I was working at this place, a firm like this, had my art up, and it went out of business in one day, and I was afraid that if I didn’t get my art out, like that day, there was a chance they would put a padlock on it and I’d have to prove to them, the Feds or whatever, that it was really mine. So, I rented a truck and a storage space that day and moved it all in there. Then I finally had a storage space, so I do have some in storage, some in my house, some here, and some at friend’s houses.
Without an inventory, do you even know how many you own?
Oh, like maybe two to three hundred, something like that.
Do you have one piece in your collection that you treasure above all others?
Yeah, but I sold it (laughs). I don’t know, I have this Griffin piece. That’s my number one piece. It’s an insane black and white line drawing from this book Man From Utopia, his most psychedelic period. It’s of a surfer going through…some people say it’s a heart. It’s like a cosmic thing.
Any other artists that you’re especially partial to?
Yeah, well one artist I really like a lot is Alex Grey. There are a lot of artists who, they seem like they couldn’t get any better. People will say, what artists do you like the most, or what artist is the best artist, and all that. To me, there’s just like this level that you get to, and they’re all doing something different. There’s a lot.
In 2006, you produced a really great documentary about Long Gone John. How did that come to fruition?
This guy named Gregg Gibbs decided to do it. I maybe had a hand in the initial making of the film, in that I introduced Long Gone John to Gregg Gibbs. They didn’t know each other before that, and Gregg was so blown away by Long Gone John, which I was too, that he decided to make a film on Long Gone John. I couldn’t believe that Long Gone John would let anybody make a film on him, because it’s so personal to have all your stuff out there like that. He doesn’t seem like he would be willing to do that…but he is like ridiculously honest in a way. He’ll say stuff that no one else would ever say, or that he shouldn’t say. Like my God, I can’t believe he just said that, you know? And then he’s another guy, one of the first collectors of all this lowbrow, pop surrealism, whatever you want to call it, stuff. So basically it’s like this, you know people are fans of Ted Nugent, or Alice Cooper, or whatever rock star they might be a fan of, and I was a fan of Long Gone John’s (laughs). He was my rock star, just as everything, as a collector, as an art piece himself…or just him as a human. So this film, there’s going to be a film on this guy that I’m totally intrigued by, that I admire…his art, his collection, his tastes, kind of embodied what a lot of people from around here, Southern California, L.A., Orange County like. He’s a factor times ten, and his story is so interesting because he was…he sort of came from such a poor childhood, and was able to somehow do all this stuff with this crazy record company.
So Gregg Gibbs gets this film up to this point, to where it’s 80 or 90 percent made, but the huge thing that’s missing is the music, because you have to pay all this money for music. So they’re trying to raise all this money to do this, and I brought in a few people to see if I could get them to invest in this film, and every time I would try to get people to invest, I would try to give them a bigger and bigger sales pitch until the sales pitch finally worked…on myself (laughs). So, I invested myself.
Will you be producing any more films?
I say that I would never make another film again because…well, put it this way, I would make another film all day long, but I wouldn’t be an executive producer again, because I’m not going to ever pay for another film again. You’re just throwing your money away on almost any documentary. When people ask will I make another film again, I say ‘yeah, with the profits I get back from The Treasures Of Long Gone John’ (laughs).
I am helping a guy make a documentary on Rick Griffin right now. There’s a scoop…and the guy’s doing a really good job from what I can see, and he might want me to invest in it, you know, but he’s just being really clever about not asking me, which is probably the only way you can get me to do it. But that’s the one thing I don’t plan to do, because I just don’t want to lose the money.
Who are some new or emerging artists that you’re excited by?
If you had asked me that ten years ago, I’d have said Liz McGrath.
Are you going to Art Basel?
No. Sometimes I’ve gone there, when Copro decided to have a booth there, when it all converged. I think I went there once without any reason to go there. When you go there with nothing to do…we ended up just staying at the house that we rented. It had a nice pool and a Jacuzzi, and you could paddleboard in the backyard, so…(laughs), also, you’ve got to go right as it begins or early, if you go after the first party days, something like that, it’s like you go there, and the number one reason you should go there for is gone. So, that’s when I learned that you shouldn’t go.
You said you might be doing a Kustum Kulture 20 year anniversary show. What else are you working on?
I just helped do this show that’s at the California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside, and it’s these outlaw biker vests. The vests are from defunct motorcycle clubs, because you couldn’t do it with existing clubs. That runs through December 8th.
Wrapping up, where would you like to see lowbrow/pop surrealism go from here?
To me the labels of of lowbrow, pop surrealism and others are great but what it really boils down to is good art and bad art. Before lowbrow there was a lot of bad art. Ever since Robert Williams, Kustom Kulture and Juxtapoz Magazine there is more and more good art. So this is where I want to see it go from here: More GOOD art!
Thanks Greg, it’s been a treat!
All photos courtesy of (and from the collection of) Greg Escalante.