Entering the void of artist Corey Lamb

Dipping into the lowbrow art stylings of florida-based artist to get the skinny on his work

An article by Helena Sokol & Corey Lamb
Published: July 22, 2017

I’ve always been a lover of lowbrow. The first time I heard the word, and investigated it, I was amused by the definitions I found on the internet – “Lowbrow: relating to, or suitable for a person with little taste or intellectual interest.” I almost felt flattered. On the contrary, “highbrow” appeals to fine taste, manners and culture. There’s a catch, though. Your eyebrows might get stuck up there, like when your mother told you not to cross your eyes, or they would stay like that.

While the meaning of lowbrow hasn’t changed, the art movement showed the world how bad taste can look great.

It started in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the late seventies, born out of the genres that were not considered fine art – cartoons, digital art, tattoos, all mixed with pop culture and an innate ability to shake the perception of the viewer. It is like gonzo art, relentlessly and mercilessly commenting on the chaotic political and social landscapes. The tone and atmosphere of the works are jovial, playing and ironic, and the lowbrow art movement continues to embrace all of the freaks. They embody many genres, including photography, digital collage and oil painting, and continue to be a liquid, anarchistic front. The people identifying with the movement also probably like it that way.

“On occasion, I would draft up plans for things like swords and axes…”

For me, lowbrow is to let yourself embrace your dark side, consciously thwarting your own perception to let yourself get attracted to what is not normally seen as beautiful. To find more meaning in the unconventional, and to rejoice in the eerie similarity of thought within the work. Sharing a shady secret with the artist, whether they are conscious of it or not.

Due to the nature of lowbrow, it is no surprise that they set up camp in the land of bad taste, Instagram, and made it a little better, in my opinion. It also meant that it became easier to find talented underground artists, simply from browsing and getting deeper and deeper into the related recommendations. I am now inviting you, dear reader, to get on Instagram and take a long, good look at the user @coreyklamb.

More than three years ago, I started following artist Corey Lamb in his colorful endeavors into the space between stark reality and his uncanny universe of comic relief.

I believe that it’s about time everybody takes a deep dive into his story, and the thoughts behind the work.

Lamb: “I was born towards the tail end of the Cold War; April 14th, 1983. This is pertinent in that I grew up in a time when the American narrative was a jumble of anti-communism, escapism, and nascent hyper capitalism. However, most of this was experienced from afar through movies, magazines, comics, and videogames because I grew up in a relatively small town in Texas, its most discernable feature being huge tracts of grass farms. It is kind of like growing up in a large manicured lawn. No mountains, ocean, or other natural wonder; just a sea of green St. Augustine grass.

Growing up, my parents were creative in their own ways. My father was a welder by trade and would often use his skills to make decorative and functional objects in his spare time. On occasion, I would draft up plans for things like swords and axes, which he would take to work with him and come back in a day or two with a pretty polished up, albeit dull, version of what I had concocted on paper. Like many people who live in a rural area, crafts are pretty important to pass the time and keep your sanity, which my mother did quite a bit when I was very young. Mostly I remember her making slip cast molds at a local ceramics shop where she worked, which she would then bring home and paint by hand. If I had to pinpoint it, I would say this was my first experience of painting; granted it was a painted object and not a flat surface.”

Growing up in the countryside is a funny thing. For some people, it’s paradise, with its simplicity and quiet. For others, it is like staring into a white wall for too long. Your brain starts creating input to make up for the lack of visual activity. Sometimes this environment can create the perfect setting for a much bigger impact when culture hits you. Corey’s first interaction with art was on a field trip to Houston, at age 16.

“Turrell, Kiefer, Delacroix, Goya, Braque, Picasso, and Monet ushered me into a completely different visual culture. This was the first time I physically experienced a dramatic shift in both quality and value of cultural goods.”

Despite not developing an interest in painting early on, and not doing so easily when he later started working, Corey had a lot of time on his hands during his time on the Texas plains where his two most prevalent passions intertwined; drawing and reading.

“Most of my earliest endeavors were centered around illustrating events or people from the stories that I read. This later branched off into copying comics and producing video game related works, as they became a more dominant medium as I grew older. When I did decide to start painting, I was already three years into university as a Political Science major, with intentions of entering law school. The turnaround was risky, but my parents were supportive, if not a little worried, of my decision.”

At age 21, he started painting from direct observations, depicting the physical appearances of his environment. The main motif was, and has been ever since, the figure, or versions thereof—whether directly, through reference or application.

“I took a lot of inspiration and influence from painters like Lucien Freud, Antonio Lopez-Garcia, and Euan Uglow, which is interesting because my current work seems to be the anethema of that whole practice.”

It is hard to see these influences in Corey Lamb’s work today, but nonetheless, they seep through the cracks. The brushwork of Lucien Freud, the depth of landscapes from Lopez-Garcia are examples, but Lamb himself has moved far away from the traditional representation.

As a product of pop culture himself, the important motives moved from being natural to becoming virtual; the NES (8-bit) games, early internet culture and the fantasy/horror movies of the 80’s are the pivot points for his oeuvre, both aesthetically and through direct transfer of symbols and text.

Corey Lamb collection for Blacklisted

“It has definitely had an impact on my painting, both formally and conceptually. This is largely because gaming was a foundational experience for me; not painting. I’m constantly looking for a dialogue between the two mediums. I tend to punch up the saturation and contrast as much as I can get away with, as it runs parallel to the backlit intensity of the monitor/screen. Also, my painting space is guided by the same design principles of a game’s user interface. Things like icons, non-objective elements, and multiple forms of representation all co-exist within the same space. As I dig through art history I find more and more corollaries with video games and utilitarian image making of the past. For example, with illumination, you get scribes that slowly and adeptly moved into the realm of pictorial space on parchment, and, likewise, you get programmers and computer scientists that slowly moved into a pictorial space via video games. In both cases you get an aesthetic that is as inventive as it is clunky and unstudied, which I find exciting in both instances.”

The cult status of computer graphics and the 1980’s aesthetics, including the associated nostalgia, has always both fascinated and infuriated me. As a child of the nineties, I didn’t experience it first hand, but my older siblings and my father paved the way for me to become obsessed with playing Rick Dangerous, R-Type,Wolfenstein, and so on. So when I initially stumbled over Tumblr’s adoration of computer games, culminating with the genre of vaporwave aesthetics, I was equally intrigued and insulted. I felt the tinge of nostalgia, the urge to use the looks myself, but it all felt too easy. It plays tricks on the mind. With Corey’s inspiration distinctly rooted in this genre, it was an obvious subject to bring up.

Corey Lamb collection for Blacklisted

“The current cult status or revival of early computer graphics/1980s aesthetics is largely inevitable; mostly because of the human tendency towards nostalgia. What we are currently finding is that artists who were inculcated with the particular aesthetic and experiences that would necessitate such imagery are finally coming into their own within the art world at large. However, nostalgia is tricky. It can point towards the past, but it has the tendency to fictionalize and distort our perception of that time. It’s the” Remember the Good Old Days” syndrome. My own connection to the movement has more to do with being honest with my own visual culture and using it as a vehicle for something more. If people understand the references, that’s great, but it isn’t a necessity.”

And r3m3mbxor wH3n w3 wr0t3 1ik3 th1s? This 1337 speak (i.e.: ‘leet’, meaning elite-language) trend, as it was called, faded more than a decade ago, but its history is rather rich, if you browse around. The alternative alphabet of Internet language with its interchangeable letters, numbers and symbols, was first coined by the hacker-group Cult of the Dead Cow in Texas during the eighties, mostly used for elite access to certain games, chat rooms and folders. It is related to emoticons and ASCII-art, and has, like most pop culture at this point, transcended into being a meme and then re-integrated into pop culture. However, when implemented into art it is interesting to see the reactions, seeing as there are many different contexts of the language – some people remember it from the bulletin board systems, while others with no connection to it, might find it to be both annoying and silly to read and write.

“The leet speak I use in my titles is largely juvenile and dumb, but that’s kind of the point.

I would think this would dissuade a lot of viewers from getting into the work, but I’m okay with that. It’s as much of a litmus test as the rest of the aesthetic.”

Moving away from the motive of the painting themselves, I have always found the different processes of creation interesting; the kind of courage it takes to make the first stroke, and the willpower of finishing a task so seemingly insurmountable. To create a new world. Therefore, it’s also important to show that artists are human, people with working hours, routines and plans. They might see things other people do not, but there is always a fine line between letting yourself go into a trance of imagination and staying in touch with reality.

“The beginning of a painting is always my favorite. It’s like diving into a cool, still pool of water or that first bite of your favorite food. While the rest of the swim or meal will still be enjoyable, it doesn’t quite compare to that initial moment of sensory impact. My planning is usually at a minimum, rough sketches at best. So, before I put paint to surface I mentally flip through ideas that I’ve had running around and do a bit of pre-visualization. After an image has settled, loosely, I just lay in as quickly as possible. I don’t believe in bad or good starts. That first session just sets up the dialogue from which to move forward.

The middle is more like any other job. I get up and go to work. At this stage, it’s like solving a Rubik’s cube or untangling a snarl of knots. Each decision, hopefully, reaches closer to a resolution. The main trick is trying not to end it prematurely or too quickly. A certain amount of surface history and paint have to develop before I am content with the idea of finishing a piece off. It took me a while to really pick up on this aspect of painting. “Surface” is as important as shape and color.”

Corey Lamb collection for Blacklisted

The end of a painting sucks. Only because it’s tedious and picky, the opposite of how I start. Once I’ve got everything locked into place on the surface, it’s more about fine tuning and paying attention to more nuanced parts of the piece; like minding corners, checking edges, and crawling through the surface looking for inconsistencies or areas that don’t mesh. It’s more like brushing and flossing teeth at this point.”

Having established an insight into the actual work processes, we can better appreciate the richness of the content – something with which the artist himself had often struggled with.

“After finishing up undergraduate, I stopped painting for a few years. I knew I did not want to paint from direct observation anymore, but I did not really know where to go from there. Content was a weird thing to engage in any meaningful way, mostly because my life lacked experience outside of academics, and I wasn’t terribly interested in straight up formalism. So, I kind of just walked away from it for a few years. At a certain point, I was heavily invested in preparing myself for a career in entertainment design for video games. It was easier than trying to re-engage art.

As is apparent, scrolling through Corey’s website, or his Instagram, the figure is at the center of his work. At times, I even felt that it was family-like. I saw children and adults standing or playing, interacting with the abstract, yet tangible surroundings. The cartoonish outlines of a Mickey Mouse-like figure penetrate the people like ghosts – things are not going well, despite the smiles. Everything is melting behind your back, and you keep waving. The stubbornness of their happiness is admirable. Somewhere in the mixture, I felt that these visuals must have been rooted in something real, whether good or bad.

“But somewhere along this path, I also started a family, and it was really this aspect of my life that provided the push I needed to get back into painting and art. For a lot of artists, kids are like the death knell to their career; mine had the exact opposite effect. Starting back up, I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do, but I knew I had elements of my life that felt concrete and substantial to build around. A lot of my work up to this point has been centered on the depiction of an individual persona or a family-like grouping in conjunction with central themes that gravitate around birth and death. Conceptually, the themes are explored as fact, inevitable and constant. These earlier depictions run the range from very specific to the archetypal. My most current work shifts more towards the abstract and essential, allowing the narrative to move towards more topical themes that are less focused on constants or eternals.”

However, another specific characteristic showed up in a series of Lamb’s recent works—mostly portraits of children. It was the word sorry. When I first noticed, I thought it was an ironic nod to children’s lack of regret. It’s an inherent adult, very self-conscious emotion. However, in this case it turned out to relate to a specific event.

Corey Lamb collection for Blacklisted

My most recent paintings were centered around processing an individual event; taking the stance of a history painter in a contemporary context. Specifically, I was trying to deal with the events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 and the inaction that followed. The lack of any significant legislation or movement towards a positive resolution kind of stuck in my throat like a piece of dry bread. I find myself trapped in a culture that largely sees tragedy and disaster as a form of entertainment, incapable of any real emotional investiture or personal sacrifice to rectify. We send flowers to the graves, for whatever it’s worth. The apologies that show up in my paintings are largely symbolic. Meaningful on a personal level, but meaningless on a cultural level.

December 14, 2012, 20-year old Adam Lanza fatally shot more than 25 people at Sandy Hook Elementary, including 20 children between the ages six and seven. The case revived many debates on mental health, gun control and video games, but the government was widely criticized for the lack of response.

Aside from approaching this horribly difficult subject in his canvases, Corey Lamb has extended his oeuvre into sculptural pieces; adorned with toys and dolls and plastic remnants, these seem taken out of the painting, drenched in equal parts paint and sadness.

The sculptural pieces started in graduate school as a side project to the body of work I was creating. It was mostly concerned with taking the physical aspects of my paintings and dropping the proclivity towards representation altogether. In a lot of ways, I think these pieces are able to get directly at my purpose of painting, even more so concerning the Sandy Hook element. Painting is an act of preservation; whether it’s thought, experience, memory, or narrative. These sculptural works allow me to approach that aspect in a very straight forward manner.

Corey Lamb collection for Blacklisted

The toys encased in paint are all purchased from thrift stores, a strong nod to Mike Kelley, and are repurposed and memorialized through the act of putting them into a painting context. Painting has this ability to confer importance due to its cultural and historical usage. That’s a very powerful thing if you take it into context.

Taking a step back from the specifics, to understand the broader perspective, one idea important to Corey is described in Death of the Author, a 1967 essay by Roland Barthes. The French theorist and literary critic discussed the viability of interpreting cultural pieces by the intentions and biographical context of the author. Instead, he argues, text and author should remain separated, at arm’s length.

“What I find interesting is that if you take the argument further, Barthes argument states that the biographical and personal intent of the artist is irrelevant. He debunks the myth of the author as genius. Instead, he points to the fact that the author is just a product (or mouthpiece) of their culture and, super importantly, language. The author/artist can’t build anything original, they can only build upon the accumulated past. The real authority and power resides in the viewer and their act of interpretation.

I see paintings as a meeting point for cultural experiences, which shouldn’t be overly directed or didactic in nature. Sure, I’ve got my motives and particular aesthetic, but I am just as interested in off the cuff interpretations from the viewer. The tension between abstraction and representation allows, for me, a more open dialogue which is a bit more honest about the properties of paint as a vehicle for mimicry and as a physical component with its own inherent properties that convey meaning and tone.”

Corey Lamb collection for Blacklisted

If you go through the pictures by @coreyklamb, you will also see digital collages, a genre which has lured in the background for many years, beginning with GIFs and well-timed glitches. Merging fine art and video games, text and context, Corey has touched upon it several times–despite not having found its place in his practice, it continues to be of interest.

“One of the most difficult things about a digital collage is its temporality. Because everything is morphed and changed, taken and put back on the internet, digital collages seem to drown in its own material. Interactivity also plays a massive role through VR and the new technology in videos, and so, digital remains a strange, untamed beast.

Digital collage is in a strange place currently. On one hand, you have this completely perfect, democratic medium and format that is aptly suited for the internet. Yet, on the other hand, it isn’t easily monetized, which I think shuts a lot of doors. In its pure digital form, I’m curious as to how it will pan out in the future. I see too many high-end art cliques engaged in the practice for it remain irrelevant for too long. However, as a source of influence, digital collage has already infiltrated contemporary painting. I don’t think you can walk through a contemporary gallery without seeing some small nod to Photoshop or MS-Paint. Some of my current favorites are heavily invested in its use. So, in a lot of ways, it has already landed.”


Corey Lamb’s latest work is currently on exhibition at Galerie Wolfsen in Aalborg. For more information about the gallery’s opening hours, or specifics of the exhibition, follow the link below. And make sure to follow Lamb on Instagram for daily progress of his work.

artist & exhibition information

Instagram
@coreyklamb

Galerie
Wolfsen

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