Greg Escalante killed himself in his bedroom on September 7th, in a desperate attempt to end a struggle with depression that had plagued him since his early twenties. The hugely energetic persona the Southern California art scene knew and loved—dressed in wildly patterned suits, always sporting a fedora and seemingly at all events at once—hid his bipolar swings from the public, and even from most of his friends. His ebullient Instagram and Facebook feeds often showed Greg’s animated figure, eyebrows raised, an open laugh and his forefinger pointing at art or an artist he was with. That pointing finger tells it all. It was never about Greg, but about you experiencing his fantastic discoveries.
Art had to wow him or he wasn’t interested. From his teen years on, Greg was drawn to work that later gained the moniker ‘Lowbrow.’ The established art world, as ‘Lowbrow’ supporters saw it, was a boring arena of decorative pieces meant for millionaires, and academic theory gave those works a veneer of ‘bad boy’ rebellion. Greg wanted the real thing, art that was about raw human experience uncensored by aesthetic pretense. In Southern California that meant hot rods, surfing, cinema, television, comics, sex and the macabre, all mixed surrealistically together into a radical cultural expression that thumbed its nose at a stuffy elite. From its inception, the movement’s paterfamilias was Greg Escalante.
In co-founding Juxtapoz magazine with Robert Williams, Greg helped create a venue that eventually gave this underground movement international exposure. He opened two Los Angeles galleries, curated museum shows of pop culture and gave talks at conferences, art schools and backyard potlucks. Greg was a master facilitator for the art and artists he loved; it was never about the money. It is said the art of salesmanship is to effectively transfer your enthusiasm (feigned or not) to the customer, and Greg’s passion was boundless. He could barely contain himself when he encountered work that excited him, but instead of going after the financial reward most dealers seek, Greg wanted to help get that art the exposure and support he felt it deserved.
A certified accountant would have a hard task tallying the artists’ lives that Greg Escalante touched. In the LA area during the early 1980s there were barely a dozen artists of any credibility doing figurative representational work. Now there are thousands, with the bulk of those fitting in some manner into the Pop Surrealism vein. In popularizing his favorite artists, Greg fostered a groundswell of creators who realized they didn’t have to grapple with the restrictions of the official art world. They could build their own base, sell to their own collectors, and have a popular following that establishment-artists could only dream of. The advent of Instagram and Facebook multiplied the possibilities Greg had already envisioned.
The artist Sandow Birk said, “Greg was not only my best friend since I was a teen, he was a mentor into the art world, although he wasn’t really an art world “insider.” We would often go surfing together up and down the coast and on long drives we would plan and discuss the business side of my career. Greg was always plain-talking and straightforward. His simple guidelines were to include everyone who had helped on a project, thank everyone, give everyone who worked on a deal or a show credit and a fair cut of the money and be honest. It’s a way of working that I’ve taken to heart and followed since the beginning because it makes sense. And I’ve been lucky enough to have found dealers who feel and work the same way.”
When Greg took his life that Thursday afternoon it was apparently a spur of the moment decision. He’d done some household chores and put dinner in the crockpot to cook. The walls of his Huntington Beach condo are covered with artworks by the artists he championed. Surrounded as he was by his favorite pieces, it is tragic to realize that his art could not suppress the pain that was consuming him. Art’s job is to create meaning in a universe that insists it has none. It shakes us all when our protective patchwork of artistic efforts splits at the seams and the void seeps in around the edges. In his happier moments Greg found joy in works that celebrated the crazy juxtapositions of life and the eternal human drive to find meaning in chaos. The Greg Escalante that will be remembered by the artistic community he helped build is not the one who succumbed to a depression so dark few of us will ever experience it, but the one who told us to follow our gut, do well what we love and make works that laugh loudly and point at the crazy world that is art.