In 1846, the Republic of California declared its political independence from Mexico in the short-lived Bear Flag Revolt. More than a century later, in 1963, the state gained its cultural independence with the pop music hit “California Dreamin’”; that same year, California painter Ed Ruscha sunburned New York Pop Art with his masterpiece “Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas.”  In 1979, the Dead Kennedys declared a cultural Sprachraum with their anthem “California Uber Alles.”  And in 2005, Los Angeles punk rock artist Raymond Pettibon had a solo show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

California’s cool cultural and artistic imperialism has become a sort of anti-Avant Garde, spawning a new generation of artists who defy categorization by the fine art mafia. “Après Garde” art is a negation of the aesthetic status quo, and manifests itself in two distinct manners. Primarily, Après Garde art is about depicting an unfamiliar reality inhabited by various characters that have evolved from "toon" ancestors.  Most of the action is firmly placed in the here and now, although the “here” is frequently unidentifiable, and the “now” is temporally unspecified. Secondly, with its drastically curtailed use of the human figure, Après Garde art blurs the distinction between figurative and abstract Art, bringing forth a new type of Post-Rave representational abstraction. These two manifestations of Après Garde create a psychedelic parallel universe for the viewer’s scrutiny; it’s the secular equivalent of a trip on the powerful tryptamine DMT.  The combination of these divergent realities provides a lexicon for the new, post-millennial fables required by a jaded art audience. Après Garde art is a radical departure from reality-based Avant Garde art, and has become the new Graphic Populism.  Originally taking the form of Low Brow, Pop Surrealism, and Weirdo Deluxe, Après Garde art forced its way into the new gallery scene that reinvigorated the Los Angeles art world of the late ‘90s and has only gained strength in the decade since then.

The psychedelic nature of Après Garde art really isn’t much of a surprise, considering its foundations in the anti-establishment underground comics coming out of San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s. Ground zero was Zap Comix #1, a series of counterculture strips by the artist Robert Crumb; later issues would contain work by Rick Griffin and Robert Williams, among others. Thumbing a collective nose with their fuck-you-finger, these artists represented a radical rift with most of AmeriKKKa; the open references to drug use were obviously meant to insult the “silent majority.” However, what was most unusual was how these artists also made fun of their readership. Crumb’s anti-hero characters Mister Natural and his dim-witted disciple Flaky Foont took the piss out of the Hippies and their granola-smoking self-righteousness. This complete lack of circumspection is one of the foundations of the Après Garde; even its own sacred cows get ground into profane hamburgers.

In 1993, Bolton Colburn, curator of the Laguna Art Museum in Laguna Beach, California, put together the show Kustom Kulture, an exhibition that presented custom automobiles and the visual art related to them as a new, post-psychedelia starting point for cultural change. In addition to paintings and sculptures, the show included actual hot rods and custom cars, so the viewer could stand next to a ’32 Ford while looking at a painted depiction of one. This schism between an object in the three-dimensional world and its two-dimensional representation is the defining characteristic of Après Garde art; the subject is reality-based, but the expression is cartoon-based. Free from the fetters of accurate description, the Après Garde artist delves into the sublime world of descriptive fantasy. However, the Kustom Kulture exhibition presented the cultural maverick Von Dutch as an artist who rejected this freedom, preferring instead to remain loyal to the pragmatic discipline of pin striping. Since there is no reality that is being represented, Von Dutch’s pinstripes and flames are completely non-objective, becoming self-defining icons; Après Garde encourages this distillation of source. In order to understand what the Buddhists call “flameness” it is no longer necessary to observe the flames of an actual fire; one can get there by admiring the already stylized flames painted on a hot rod. Thus, a cartoon representation becomes the starting point for comprehension of an object in the “real” world.

This rejection of any allegiance to accurate representation is also one of the roots of some contemporary graffiti art. With its emphasis on heavy lines between areas of color, graffiti is a natural cousin to cartoons. The drawings of the late underground cartoonist Vaughn Bodé became a major stylistic influence on large graffiti pieces, and his dopey characters presaged the blasé-faire B-Boy attitude. Street Graffiti “pieces” are a legible graphic representation of the artist’s name, while “Wildstyle” takes those letters then abstracts them and adds various graphic devices to render them unreadable. Contemporary Graf artists working in these two different styles reflect the representational and abstract genres of Après Garde art; the combination of the two different approaches realizes the destruction of conventional art values. In the early 1990s, the Graf artist Twist was redefining street art while a new generation of art-damaged kids was back at home getting down with their 16-bit video games and the new mobile manifesto, Juxtapoz Magazine. At its genesis, Juxtapoz brought underground art to the attention of these art trainees; later issues mixed up old school cartoon styles with new school street and video game art.  This new hybrid was a mash-up of Pokemon-style cyber-animals and graffiti’s urgent draftsmanship.

The traditional concept of an Avant Garde holds the idea that technique should be sacrificed so that concept may prevail. Après Garde artists instead prioritize technical finesse over conceptual chops. Since there is no reality to which one can compare the end result, an understanding of an abstract or non-objective work of art depends on successful technique. The only way an audience can judge the success or failure of an Après Garde work of art is by considering its quotient of retinal delight; ultimately, it should be eye candy for the aesthetically deprived.

For years the Avant Garde has been touted as fine art’s “cutting edge,” the harbinger and enforcer of aesthetic change.  It’s not surprising that young artists aren’t interested in having anything to do with an “advance guard” that has gotten so stale and bloated that it is incapable of quick cultural response.  Aesthetics have changed and so have the tactics used to get the point across.  Keep looking over your shoulder - the Après Garde is right behind you.