Jonathan LeVine

Art dealer Jonathan LeVine is a champion of an art movement variously called “Lowbrow Art” or “Pop Surrealism”: work rooted in the aesthetics and culture of street art, graffiti, punk rock and underground comics.

The movement, which arose in Los Angeles in the late 1970s, has spread across the United States and into cities as far flung as Paris, Tokyo and Sao Paulo.

LeVine began his days as a dealer by selling the work of local New York City artists at venues such as CBGBs, the storied music club on the Bowery. He later moved to Philadelphia to found the Tin Man Alley Gallery, where he helped build the reputations of movement artists like Jeff Soto, Tim Biskup and Gary Baseman.

Levine recently returned to New York to showcase his unconventional roster of artists to the Chelsea crowds—and has cultivated a star-studded client list that includes Madonna and Marilyn Manson.

ArtInfo spoke to LeVine about what defines Lowbrow Art; how the market for it has grown in recent years; and what potential collectors should know before diving into this area.

You operate a gallery that focuses on what might broadly be called Lowbrow Art: art influenced by illustration, comic books and graffiti. Why have you made this niche your focus as a dealer?

I’m interested in work that is accessible and humor based, work that really blurs the line between fine art and underground art. I came from an academic art background that stressed conceptual art. But I was heavily involved with underground culture and punk. I was always collecting rock flyers, comic books and fanzines.

People look at this art and say, “That’s illustration, that’s graffiti, that’s comic book art”— and it’s easy to dismiss—but in fact what these artists are doing is using popular imagery as their icons.

Personally, I like to call the art I sell “Pop Pluralism” because even though much of the work is very different, I feel that the one common thread that goes through all of it is pop culture.

Do you encounter resistance to accepting Lowbrow Art as an authentic genre within fine art?

There’s definitely a resistance to [this type of art] even though it’s not really underground anymore. I think it’s running parallel to the mainstream art world. The artists that we work with are quite well known, but I think they are more connected with pop culture and lifestyle magazines. We still haven’t been picked up by the mainstream art press yet. [But] I’m not going to sit around and wait for the mainstream art world to give us the okay.

What types of collectors buy underground art?

It’s a younger crowd, probably averaging from their mid-30s to early 40s. Many of our customers are people who work in the entertainment industry and the music business. We have some very high profile collectors like Jonathan Davis, the singer from Korn, and James Hetfield from Metallica. We sell to a lot of people on the West Coast, people working in the design industry and the fashion industry. [Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio are both known to be active collectors of Lowbrow Art.]

Is the price range of underground art more suitable for beginning collectors?

It’s very affordable. The prices are anywhere from $2,400 to $5,000, so I would say it’s a good place to start if you are beginning collector.

To date, what kind of investment has buying this type of art proven to be?

I would say if you have been collecting [underground art] for 10 years, the value of the work has tripled in that time.

How do you go about developing relationships with artists and discovering new talent?

I’m constantly digging in a variety of ways, through conversation, looking online, or maybe I just pick up a magazine and discover [something new] that way.

Recently I had been hearing about this amazing underground art scene in Brazil. So I went down there for three weeks. Now we’re organizing a group show for next year introducing all these Brazilian street artists.

What are a few other major venues for underground art outside of New York?

A lot of [underground art] is very West Coast based. The major venues are Billy Shire Fine Arts and the Merry Karnowsky Gallery in Los Angeles. Roq La Rue [in Seattle] and Lineage Gallery [in Philadelphia] show some of the same artists that I show.

In Europe the major gallery is Galerie Magda [Paris]. When I started there were about three galleries [showing this type of work]; now there are about 50 galleries.

What advice do you have for collectors considering beginning to seriously collect in this genre?

I would suggest that they spend some time doing some research and looking at different galleries that sell this type of work. What I should say is that Juxtapoz is the magazine that broke this genre. It’s like the bible.

Educate yourself. Understand what it is you’re looking at, and what it is you’re getting from it.

Always just choose what you like. I feel that you should never approach buying art as an investment. If people want to invest in something… go buy some stock.

Also, [be advised that] for a lot of our artists, it’s very hard to get a piece [because] there’s often a waiting list. Often their shows are sold out before they open.