By Mike Riggs
City Paper: Art Whino is a gallery that specifically promotes the underground art movement. Could you talk a little bit about what that label means to you, assuming you even consider yourself an underground artist? And do you do street art as well?
Jason Snyder: I would consider myself an underground artist in the sense that the type of art that I’m doing, and that is typically shown at Art Whino isn’t mainstream art–yet. In that sense it’s all sort of underground art. I don’t do street art because I don’t identify with that quite as well. I like to have my work out there, but I can’t really bear the thought of that disappearing or getting painted over. So while I wouldn’t identify myself as part of the street art scene, I think it all goes well together in the underground art scene.
Art Whino coming to the D.C. area is symbolic of this underground scene reaching all across the country. There’s certainly a lot of underground, graffiti-type art in New York, and on the West Coast–which is where I think it really sort of first exploded. East Coast galleries–even in New York–that show underground art haven’t been around as long as they have on the West Coast, where I think it’s always had more respect. It’s working its way around the country, and I think Art Whino is the first place in the D.C. area that’s had some major exposure for its artwork. It’s new to most D.C. people in particular.
CP: We’re talking about a town that’s dominated by the Smithsonian and other big-name, well-funded galleries–albeit, there are some great places with lower profiles, like Target and Gallery Plan B. But the closest thing to underground I’ve seen recently at a major museum was the hip-hop show at the National Portrait Gallery.
JS: It’s interesting, though, that on the West Coast–and not just California–underground art has been legitimized to a much greater extent. I wonder if it’s going to creep into institutional museums in D.C. There have been some major museum shows in Californi. Mark Ryden had a big museum show in Seattle. I wonder–at some point places like the Smithsonian are going to have to recognize it.
CP: Do you think you’re going up against mainstream tastes or art critics?
JS: I don’t really get caught up in art criticism, and I don’t understand where art critics are coming from in a lot instances. There seems to be a lack of respect for techinical ability. As far as art critics and what’s popular, the abstract stuff seems to get a lot more credit for its themes, while pieces that require a lot more technical ability, illustrations for example, which have sort of blossomed in the underground art scene, haven’t gotten as much respect from a critical standpoint. But my experience is that people seem to love it. For me, that’s all that really matters, that people enjoy my artwork. It tends to be younger people, so I guess that says something about the scene growing. I don’t know if it’s perpetually going to be younger people, but I think that more and more, underground artists are getting more eyes and with them, more respect. The whole scene is kind of growing up in that sense.
CP: Which people in the D.C. scene do you consider your contemporaries?
JS: I didn’t even know a lot of D.C. artists existed until Art Whino opened, because there wasn’t a specific gallery for our type of art before that. Since then a lot of artists have been popping up, getting a huge amount of exposure. Scott Brooks is huge, he’s shown work all over the country, and he’s pretty well respected and a really nice guy. There’s a woman who has a studio at the Torpedo Factory, Rosemarie Feit Covey, I’ve been a fan of her work for a number of years, and I don’t even know if you would consider her an underground artist. Her wood engravings are phenomenal, and thematically they feel like underground art. She’s almost like an illustrator. There’s another artist, Gregory Ferrand, who has some great work as well.
CP: You brought up an interesting point–if somebody like Brooks or Covey has had a lot of exposure, can you still call that person an underground artist? Building on that, do you think exposure and mainstream acceptance would be good for the scene? In the indie music scene, for instance, you’re called a sellout for licensing your music or signing with a big label, even though what you’re doing is introducing people to good music. Is there a similar sentiment in the underground art scene? Or are artists saying, “We want to make money because that means we’re making a living creating art”?
JS: That’s an interesting comparison to the music industry. In some ways, the music industry is similar. Some musicians feel really strongly about selling out, but there’s just as many people who have no problems with other artists trying to get their music on a t.v. show. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do, make money?
As far as popularization and the underground scene, I think that its acceptance by the mainstream is legitimizing. I don’t think we’ll keep calling it “underground art.” It might still keep the description of lowbrow, but lowbrow doesn’t necessarily mean underground. In a lot of cases it means the opposite, there’s a lot of lowbrow stuff that is really commercially successful.
CP: As far as categories go, do you think that being just lowbrow and not underground is a bad thing?
JS: It makes what we do more accessible in a lot of senses. And like the underground category, it doesn’t have the snobbery of the traditional art scene. And I don’t think the general public is turning its nose at the underground art scene, it’s more an issue of exposure.