What Max Ernst was to the Surrealists, a populist painterly polymath, Gregg Gibbs is to LowBrow. His latest exhibit delivers all the promise of LowBrow without any of the pretense that is slowing down a once-vital American art movement. In a series of small paintings, Gibbs depicts the sandwiches, desserts, and the meat carvers themselves from Phillipe’s in honor of the Los Angeles sandwich shop’s 110th anniversary.
After a four decade career of art exhibitions all over Los Angeles, the genius of Gregg Gibbs was to turn his back on the white walls and track lighting of Galleryville and have this exhibit, entitled “Sandwiches And Carvers” in the upstairs dining rooms of Phillipe’s itself. Here patrons carry up their own trays of French dip sandwiches, pickled eggs and slices of coconut cream pie and dine under paintings by Gibbs depicting many of the restaurant’s fare. Along the walls of hallways where the piled trays are carried to and bussed from hang his elegant portraits of the carvers.
The paintings are faithful renderings of the mundane. They are touchstones for the return customer but are rendered far above sign-painter status. Gibbs is a “Just the facts, ma’am” painter but this endeavour of his is a romantic odyssey. The many possibilities of sandwich combinations and dessert options abound in painterly abundance but this exhibit underscores that what Phillipe’s really sells is nostalgia.
While there is nothing particularly unique to the satisfying French dip sandwiches at Phillipe’s (beyond their claim to having invented the concoction), they are exactly as I remember them being during my first visit in 1986. Now look around at every customer in line at Phillipe’s – the old bring their young because they were taken there by family “back in the day”. The exterior gets the occasional coat of paint but the interior has hardly changed. The wooden stools at the utilitarian tables, the sawdust on the concrete floor, the newsstand, the candy counter, even the now unnecessary phone booths, almost nothing has changed at Phillipe’s. Nearly every patron there has had heartier meals, found better bargains, and waited in shorter lines at countless restaurants, but ask any one of them if they remember their first Phillipe’s visit and a recounting of impossibly sentimental meals with family members long passed flood out.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that an art gallery is any clean, well-lit space, and yet people plow money into making their versions of the perfect white cube. These spaces all around Los Angeles look great but add very little to the art viewing experience – traditionally the most important factor for an art gallery to sustain. The LowBrow genre advertises a conceit that its work is as deserving of enshrinement in these hallowed halls as much or more than any other art form; and yet somewhat hypocritically asserts a status as an art of the people. We are supposed to believe that the Ashcan Hotrodders are deserving both of the best, elite locale at which to hang their art and cuts in line for exhibitions there based on their populist bent.
In a town where the existence of art galleries has been hysterically decried as a threat to the working class, Gregg Gibbs brings fine art to as proletariat a joint as Southern California has to offer. He painted sandwiches of little consequence but installed them in a spot more sacred to many a viewer’s heart than any museum or gallery could ever occupy.
Greg Gibbs “Sandwiches and Carvers” exhibition is set to open on September 29 at Philippe: The Original, located at 1001 N Alameda St., Los Angeles, California 90012. The original press release can be viewed here.
Author: Mat Gleason
Founder of the highly controversial Coagula Art Journal (the “National Enquirer of the Art World” as the New York Observer called it), Mat Gleason is an internationally recognized art critic and curator of contemporary art. The New York Times described him as a “famously provocative Los Angeles art critic,” while the L.A. Weekly once referred to him as a “cranky, self-exiled gossipmonger.”