I have been meaning to do this series for years, but after I “retired” from Pigtails and then returned, I had already forgotten about it. A recent conversation with Ron spurred my memory, however, and so I will do it now, starting with Yolanda Pérez Villanueva, a.k.a. Arwassa.
Before I get into Arwassa’s bio, I want to explain a bit about what lowbrow art is. The lowbrow or pop surrealism movement began in California among the surfer and hot rod culture and was aimed squarely at that culture; it’s therefore considered a populist art movement, unlike movements such as abstract expressionism and the like, which are often regarded (correctly or incorrectly) as elitist. The art is characterized by the juxtaposition of “fine art” concepts or styles with kitsch, comics—especially underground comix—cartoons and other pop cultural ephemera, often in bizarre or humorous ways. More recently, Japanese culture and anime-style art have made their way into the movement. The founding father of lowbrow is usually considered to be Robert Williams, who facetiously adopted the title The Lowbrow Art of Robert Williams for his first book of collected art, in response to the fact that at the time no major galleries or museums would display his art, considering it trashy and tasteless. The name stuck and became associated with the movement as a whole, even though Williams himself has since rejected it in application to his own work. (If Williams is the movement’s father, then its godfather is surely Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, famous for his Kustom Kulture art and especially for the character Rat Fink.)
In my twenty-something years of collecting and studying art, I tend to notice recurring themes and subjects in particular movements. Though Williams himself was never much interested in the subject, one thing I’ve noticed about lowbrow art is the constant presence of little girls in it. But here’s the thing: in these images little girls are almost always subverted or perverted in some way, especially by another prominent example of the movement, Mark Ryden. My hunch is that this was/is a psycho-social reaction to an increasing cultural awareness of the sexuality of children, particularly the young girl. In that respect, it is no accident that Ryden has become by far the most famous member of the lowbrow/pop surrealist subculture. We’ll get to Ryden specifically in another post. Meanwhile, let’s examine the work of Arwassa, who is not directly involved in the movement but whose style fits pretty comfortably within it.
Yolanda Pérez was born in Valencia, Spain in 1981 and took to art at a young age, eventually graduating from Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Carlos de Valencia with a degree in Fine Arts. She specializes in vector art and illustration, as well as sculpture, and she occasionally writes stories in addition to creating visual art, with her main subject being the modern young girl in all her emotional, psychological and cultural complexity. I could say more here, but I’ll let her website explain:
She has always been fascinated by the creation of complex and conflicting characters. Her girls are a mix of little funny girls and dangerous tyrants governing in a liquid and dreamlike world. Nobody could guess if they are benevolent or evil beings. As if they were gods, seduce, play and devour all with impunity.
Actually, this sort of contradictory dichotomy pretty well describes most of the little girls depicted in the lowbrow or pop surrealist style. So what is behind this complex interpretation of the young girl? I see it as a modern incarnation of the virgin/whore dichotomy that was applied to women in Symbolist art. Symbolism addressed a variety of topics relevant to western culture at the time; the ambivalent view of women and the growing awareness of their inner lives in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was only one of them, but it was an important one. Likewise, lowbrow art’s confrontation with the modern fear and ambivalence toward a burgeoning awareness of children’s, particularly young girls’, inner life including their proto-sexuality, is, I think, an overlooked but crucial dimension to understanding what is happening here. And as with the Symbolist movement, there tends to be recurring concepts or symbols both within the individual artist’s oeuvre and within the movement as a whole.
One of the most common elements in Arwassa’s work is water. Her girls, particularly the fiendish sharp-toothed ones, usually dwell in shallow murky waters. This is a metaphor for the unconscious mind and its nebulous and sometimes sinister motivations, or at least our perception of them as such. It’s no accident that Arwassa’s girls generally have their lower halves submerged while their upper halves merrily bob on the surface. We are firmly in Freudian territory here, or its pop equivalent.
In the second of these two images, her hair transforms into tentacles once they fall below the waterline and then reemerge to torment the little ship. The kraken as little girl: now that’s an original take on the sea monster! A thoroughly modern one. Medieval man, for example, barely registered the existence of little girls, much less envisioned them as any sort of threat to their masculinity or to the larger social order. Not so today. These tiny femme fatales are now outsized monsters to some. It is reasonable to ascertain that Arwassa’s work is merely a record of this state of affairs rather than an endorsement of it, but I could certainly be mistaken.
The jewelry, gold chains, blue teeth, facial “tattoos” and neck braces add a fetishistic element to these girls, giving them some edgy personality.
These weird purple fruits pop up in several of Arwassa’s images. Fruit suggests fecundity (‘fruitfulness’ is an apt synonym), prosperity and, in the case of a certain biblical fruit—usually depicted as an apple but more likely intended to be a pomegranate—temptation.The fruits are growing in a swamp: what we have here is a peculiar sort of temptation fed by the dim, possibly dangerous waters of the deep unconscious. Not a bad way of summarizing modern society’s dread of children’s sexuality. Unwanted desires may arise from our unconscious minds despite our best efforts—that’s the horror of child nudity for many people, the fear that simply seeing a child’s naked body might trigger unwanted desires in them.
In the image below, the fruits literally take the place of the demonic little temptress’s still nonexistent breasts. The title is as much a reference to the girl as it is to the actual fruits. The butterfly “pins” in her hair, which could almost be real butterflies, root her even more in weird organicness. She is a phenomenon of nature, barely removed from her innate wildness and therefore dangerous to the status quo.
Of course, Arwassa does not shy away from showing us the young girl’s nude body, although she stops short of depicting their full femininity, choosing a doll-like smoothness instead. This is not uncommon. Indeed, in many cases the artist (consciously or unconsciously) plays into their own discomfort and depicts the children as actual dolls. Trevor Brown has done this. So has Mark Ryden, and many others. Arwassa could easily have gotten around this by simply giving these girls fish tails, but she chose to redefine the concept of mermaid here, which is telling. Her only real concession to the traditional mermaid then is that the girls are devoid of human genitalia.
Snails are an oft recurring symbol in Arwassa’s work. Snails can symbolize a number of things depending on the culture: carrying ones’s home on his back (essentially, being resourceful and content wherever one is), patience, bridging the physical and spiritual worlds (because snails can live on land or in water), even the overarching cycle of time and existence. The Christian tradition tends to view the humble snail as a symbol of sloth and laziness—unfairly so, since the snail is not slow by choice but rather by design. Many Medieval illuminated manuscripts mysteriously feature a knight doing battle with a snail. To me the snails in Arwassa’s art represent things of inherent disgustingness, and thus an attempt to tag little girls as inherently disgusting themselves. Notice how these girls treat snails like pets, as if they have a certain intimacy with creepiness. It’s pure projection, of course.
I believe too that these critters are intended to be envoys from the depths of ourselves, not so much bridging Heaven and Earth as bridging the conscious and unconscious realms. Snails are an unholy marriage between the sacred and the disturbing. That’s not far from how modern society views children on the whole. Kids are often fascinated by snails, many of them not even minding the slimy trail the snails leave behind on their skin as they move. I’ve been around enough children to know that they consistently disprove the traditionalist belief that there exists some fundamental rightness and wrongness about reality itself, and that kids are somehow plugged into it.
But snails aren’t the only animals that little girls react to in Arwassa’s art. Fish and other sea dwellers also appear with some regularity. Unlike snails, who are equally at home on land and in water, fish are strictly creatures of the deep. Fish of course have scads of meaning in Christian semiotics, but I doubt any of that is relevant here. Fish are not only sub-aqueous, they are also slippery, slimy and unpleasant to touch. In the following image our girl encounters an anglerfish, one of the most mysterious and deepest dwelling of all fish, and one of the most intimidating. What does it mean that the fish has a treasure chest in its mouth? I suspect the answer to that is rather too obvious. You don’t need to consider anything as crude as vagina dentata to see the dangers both metaphorical and real in “sexualizing” young girls—which is to say, recognizing them as sexual beings—but I guess it helps.
For our purposes here we are going to consider whales as honorary fish, though in reality they are mammals and must breathe air. Arwassa confuses the matter by depicting the whales as being the size of fish, or more likely, the girl as being whale-sized. More fetishistic jewelry and tattoos as well.
Fish may be friends to Arwassa’s girls, but they can also be lunch. Even pet goldfish may not be spared. Again, the wildness and unpredictability of the girls is in evidence. They may look cute and harmless, but their conscience isn’t fully formed yet. This illustration of Arwassa’s more than any other keys into Japanese manga and anime, where the little kawaii girl is queen . . . and occasional temptress.
She kisses the serpent, which we know to be the animal that led to the Fall of Man, sealing their wedlock. But what if the serpent is simply a part of her? What if the devil that makes little girls do things they shouldn’t—like being too attractive to adults—is a mere toy girls play with sometimes without fully understanding what it is they’re playing with?
Rainbows are ordinarily symbols of peace, prosperity, progress and in the modern political context, sexual diversity. It gets processed into sweet treats for Arwassa’s water-loving girls. So in the end these little cat mask-wearing predators make mincemeat of modern values that seem absolute on their surface but begin to melt around the edges under the light of scrutiny. And under the tongues of the naive.
I especially like this next one. She is very Alice-like in her blue dress and long blonde hair. She could almost be standing in the pool of tears, devouring a cupcake that says “Eat Me.”
For Arwassa’s girls, rainbows, once gorged upon, can be vomited up again to add a little color to one’s surroundings. At first this girl appears to be an angel, but look closer. Her angel wings are borrowed. The problem with children is that they can easily be perceived the wrong way, especially in a provocative context or state (like being nude). We encounter that here at Pigtails quite regularly, don’t we?
A day at the fair for these little girls is not what you’d think it be. The girls frolicking without clothes in their own damp, dismal homes is one thing, but going to the fair? That’s a whole new threat level. Public nudity is not something most people can handle without being triggered, even when the nudies are just children. But not only are they naked, their choice of snacks reveal them to be wild carnivorous creatures: another goldfish (newly won) and raw meat. Even the girl feasting on a normal treat to be found at fairs, a caramel apple, she has stuck to the top of her head and sucking the sticky goo out of her own hair like some kind of monkey.
Finally, in Arwassa’s take on Little Red Riding Hood, the child with the famous blood-hued fashion accessory, far from being afraid of the devious and hungry wolf, embraces it! I’ve seen several images, mostly humorous, where Red violently murders the wolf. I have never seen one where she was the wolf’s friend. That says much about girls in Arwassa’s world.