High times for lowbrow
If it looks good on an album cover, on a motorcycle or inked across your bicep, it’s at the Toyroom Gallery
The Taboo Tiki custom cruiser bike, gleaming jungle green, is the first thing to catch the eye from behind the glass storefront window. Step out of the seedy grandeur of K Street into Toyroom Gallery, and you’ll find yourself confronted by a visual carnival: urban fetish meets teenage dream. Sophisticated art and slick commercialism rub grimy shoulders in the explosion of eye candy.
There are shirts and hoodies on the racks, but this isn’t just a boutique. Bizarre toys of obscure comic-book characters mount the racks, including one called “Drinky Crow” with its own booze bottle. There are spray cans and caps for sale in a huge cabinet. Wooden cutouts of crude characters, the work of artist Garin Moore, are scattered through the store. Ranging in height from a few inches tall to over 6 feet, the figures stare sideways unsettlingly, with inky chest hair splattering out of wife-beaters and sporting patches, peg legs or Mexican wrestling masks. A rack of books next to the spray cans is stacked with issues of Robert Williams’ Juxtapoz Art & Culture Magazine; R. Crumb comics; collections of European graffiti art, the work of billboard terrorist Ron English and the art of pop provocateur Andy Warhol; and much more.
Past all of this, next to the skate decks at the back of the room, there’s an opening to the actual art gallery. It’s filled with paintings that come from the same baffling aesthetic. For lack of a better term, call it lowbrow.
More than any other Sacramento gallery, John Soldano and Craig Maclaine’s Toyroom Gallery represents the lowbrow arts movement. The ambiguity of the term may limit its usefulness, but lowbrow has become a convenient catchall for a number of different styles and genres of art as they’ve migrated from streets, garages, skateboards and train yards into galleries. One thing these styles have in common is their origin in a non-academic, often iconoclastic world of populist art.
Not only art for the masses, but art by the masses, lowbrow art is not so much mass-produced as limited-edition, crafted for the world of small-scale commerce that caters to youth cultures like rockabilly or hip-hop with album art, skateboard graphics, posters and the like. These forms have an immediate usefulness: to define a subculture and to critique the mainstream for an audience craving something dangerous and fresh.
Lowbrow may be more of an attitude than a unified movement, but it represents a return to craftsmanship and figurative art. Tattoo flash and graffiti murals may come out of different scenes, but they share a respect for realistic illustration. Like the surrealist painters of 70 years ago, the mastery of color, line, contrast and perspective serve to open up a realm of symbolic possibilities. But unlike abstract art, which scorned symbolism—social, political or religious—lowbrow uses the visual language of pop culture as raw material and grist for the mill. In this sense, it resembles the pop art of Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, though it typically is less conceptual and more visceral than the work of those artists.
John Soldano’s love affair with lowbrow art began in grammar school. “What got me hooked on this kind of art back in the ’60s was Ed Roth,” he said. “We would draw the Rat Fink character.” Soldano believes the master pin-stripers coming from the hotrod world, such as Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Von Dutch, paved the way to the gallery for today’s underground illustrators. “When those guys made it to museums, they were no longer illustrators at that point; they were fine artists.”
“People today don’t even know who Von Dutch was,” Soldano said. “They think it’s a brand. That was a guy.”
Born and raised in Sacramento, Soldano long has been interested in art. He studied ceramics under George Esquibel at Sacramento City College, and for a while he ran a ceramics business with his brother. He’d taken up vehicle restoration as another art medium (one of the motorcycles he restored sits in Centro Cocina Mexicana on J Street). His passion for collecting art, whether in the form of paintings, custom bicycles or skate decks, led him to try his hand at converting the back end of his home into a gallery.
The Toyroom Gallery started in Soldano’s garage, which opens onto an unnamed alleyway between Sloat Way and Second Avenue on 24th Street. At the gallery’s first show, visitors navigated around a semi-restored 1941 GMC pickup still parked on the dirt floor. Soldano and his future partner, Maclaine, were acquainted with artist Robert Gordon, the prolific whiskey-fueled paint slinger who has produced hundreds of signs and murals in Sacramento. Gordon was new in Sacramento then and had more than 300 paintings to sell. With a makeshift arrangement—truck hidden under canvas and walls covered in black polyethylene—Soldano and Maclaine opened the garage door on the third Saturday of December 2001. They held the Toyroom’s grand opening with no intention of ever having another one.
To their surprise, it was a success.
“People kept asking when we were going to do it again,” Maclaine said. “We had to tell people who were using John’s place for storage to come pick up their stuff.”
Maclaine was born in New Zealand and came to California after meeting Sacramento artist Kim Scott. The two met in India while traveling. Maclaine left his home in Thailand soon after and moved eastward, settling in Sacramento in 1995, when he and Scott were married.
Maclaine met Soldano, appropriately enough, at an art gallery—after spotting his motorcycle parked out front. “That looks like my bike,” Maclaine said as he and Scott arrived at the Center for Contemporary Art, at its old location on Del Paso Boulevard.
“I think I know whose bike that is,” Scott answered. She knew Soldano from the poker games she’d attended at his house. The couple went inside, and she introduced Maclaine to the man whose Moto Guzzi LeMans so closely resembled his own. The two hit it off and soon were going on motorcycle trips to Lake Berryessa, never guessing one day they’d be partners running an art gallery.
After the decision was made to continue having shows at the newly founded Toyroom Gallery, the renovation began. The space was cleared of anything directly automotive, concrete floors were installed, and Soldano had local graffiti artists and painters contribute to a mural painted on the outside of the building. Over the next several years, young Sacramento artists such as Skinner, Pete Bettencourt and Kevin Price were showcased at the gallery, along with many others.
Eventually, Soldano and Maclaine wanted to progress to a larger space. “We started this thing on a shoestring budget,” Soldano said. “The community really responded to it, so we wanted to take it to the next level.” They began hunting for another spot and stumbled on a vacant location formerly occupied by the Sierra Club on K Street, near the Crest Theatre. They opened the new location in July. However, the increased overhead on K Street is considerable, and Soldano still holds down a day job painting houses.
“We’ve had stuff sell here that would sell for two or three times as much in L.A.,” Maclaine said. “If people are at all following art and come in here, they’d see these are screaming deals.” The question is: Will Sacramento show the gallery the support it needs to operate?
The Toyroom has boasted strong shows since July. October’s show, The Exquisite Corpse, was based loosely on André Breton’s surrealist game of the same title. With each piece divided into head, torso and legs, and each artist having limited knowledge of what the others were doing, the exhibit resulted in some radical juxtaposition. Well-known artists like Anthony Ausgang and Winston Smith (of Dead Kennedys album-art fame) added to the mix.
The gallery’s current show, a three-artist exhibit called Marshmallow Land, takes you to a cartoon world both disturbing and comforting. Patrick Williams’ comic-book-like panels are thickly painted gray wastelands where toxic pink clouds hang in front of polluting factories, and amputation and disconnection take the place of punch lines. Sacramento artist John Stuart Berger places cartoon animals in rich landscapes of aquatic color in work that explores consumption and violence. Josh Taylor’s comics-inspired paintings exploit popular and religious themes, such as “Madonna & Child With Fries.” The closing reception will be on Second Saturday, December 10.
On December 16 and 17, the Toyroom will have opening receptions for a collection of ceramics, sculpture, paintings and masks by the students of Short Center North, a school for developmentally disabled adults. The Toyroom has exhibited the students’ art annually since its opening. The work of Short Center North students offers a glimpse into their world, by turns naïve and strange, cute and terrifying, childlike and surreal. The show offers a perspective unfamiliar to most of us. Soldano and Maclaine consider the event a contribution to the community as well as a good time. “It’s really important for them,” Soldano said, referring to the Short Center students. “And it’s really important that people take notice of what they’re capable of.”
Soldano and Maclaine are bringing high aspirations for lowbrow fine arts in Sacramento. So fear not K Street, gentle art walker.