Leveling Up Low Arts

Steve Janowicz | Photograph by Catalina Fragoso

Think for a minute about Spongebob Squarepants, with his shirt and tie, and his…square pants. Think about the faceless basketball player from the And1 logo (Does anyone wear And1 anymore?). Think about the last movie poster you saw. What do they have in common? They are low art.

“It’s anything not in a gallery or publicly considered art,” says Steve Janowicz, artist, soft-spoken revolutionary, and the creator of LowArts, a company hell-bent on challenging the contemporary consumer perspective.

The truth behind low art is that the artists are credited as designers, but are not valued as artists in the way galleried artists are, even when the low artists’ work can consume more time and more dynamic consideration at the drawing board.
Steve designs murals, paints canvases, and prints t-shirts—all in limited edition. One mural, for example, he custom-painted on the office wall of Over The Edge Productions. An interpretation of the company’s name, the mural cannot be found anywhere else. It is not on their website, nor on their business cards. The name—the painting—is a unique work. Steve creates low art, with a specific focus in designing unique characters, with them appearing on shirts and on canvas. “I challenge people to take low art and make it high art. Is it just a cool limited edition shirt to wear or is it art to frame and hang? The buyer decides.”

But why the challenge? Why put pressure on customers who don’t want to possibly ruin their limited edition shirt or worry about the value of their dollar? Simply, it stands as a testament to talent that goes unrecognized. “Kids watch cartoons,” Steve poses, “that could be drawn in a dark room in Cambodia or something…and no one thinks about the time put in,” emphasizing how distanced the actual artist is from the audience. The truth behind low art is that the artists are credited as designers, but are not valued as artists in the way galleried artists are, even when the low artists’ work can consume more time and more dynamic consideration at the drawing board. Some low artists are also seen as delinquents, like graffiti artists.

Low Arts | Red Bot by Steve Janowicz

Red Bot by Steve Janowicz

For example, there is Zephyr, a NYC graffiti artist famous for tagging subway trains as a statement of authority over the MTA, meaning to show how the community understood and had more control of the trains than the operators. Contemporary thought sees this as a crime; Zephyr defaced public property. However, in being a pioneer, he’s become recognized for his particular style, which set forth a lot of standards for graffiti as an art—standards which are now used commercially in the Journey’s Shoes logo. And this is an extreme parity problem, that these low artists can be infamous for their hard work, yet their art is essentially stolen, remixed, and marketed to target audiences. This is where the topic can get deeply critical and turn into a philosophical digression on ethics and aesthetics. But Steve keeps it relaxed: LowArts is not a critical movement. “Take it for what it is,” he says, keeping the consumer’s decision paramount.

Even with this chilled perspective, nothing slows LowArts down. Steve wants to move toward painting more murals, legally, in public places where it is impossible not to be seen, expanding the exposure of LowArts. The increased visibility will, Steve hopes, increase public interest in LowArts, translating into appearances in galleries. Until that becomes a reality, Steve continues to produce new work, inspired by the world around him. “I’m inspired by everything. A crumpled napkin. Maybe I’ll see something in the tiles on the bathroom floor, whatever I can take out of life. It’s just about having an eye for it. The most challenging thing I’ve been doing lately is working off a blank canvas, so I start with some dots or a swoosh—whatever I want in the moment.”

The LowArts challenge to reevaluate the social perspective on art isn’t to make money, or to have people to appreciate his characters – it’s so the community can start to notice and enjoy the smaller, less obvious, artistic details in their surroundings. Steve, through LowArts, just wants to make people happy. “Every time I showed people my Lemo-Made shirts, I got a smile. That’s life, right? Smiles and laughs.”

About the Author

Patrick BoylePatrick Boyle is the Founder and Editor-in-chief of Lamplighter. He is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars and takes considerable care when drafting e-mails. Follow him on Twitter: @PatBoyleView all posts by Patrick Boyle →