Loser Wins

08.14.08

Left: Alleged Gallery on Ludlow Street. Right: Barry McGee and Steve Powers.


“A BUNCH OF US used to hang out in this little storefront on the Lower East Side that, y’know, we called it a ‘gallery’ but it wasn’t really a gallery, it was more of, like, a party spot.” Investing unashamedly in the romantic narrative of misfits-made-good, and leaning perhaps a little too hard on a tirelessly youthful, borderline counter-intellectual ethic (“a culture that’s made for kids by kids”; “It was really just a bunch of kids, a bunch of dumb, bored kids”; “geniusly [sic] dumb”), director Aaron Rose’s Beautiful Losers, an account of the rise and partial fall of the scene around his own Alleged Gallery in ’90s New York, is a periodically irritating but often inspiring watch—whether one finds the featured artists’ cutesy variations on unschooled/street style genuinely resonant, merely likable, or verging on the grating. Rose’s close connection with his subjects makes for an engagingly candid set of interviews. And the film is nicely judged, too, in its impressionistic mix of borrowed and original footage.

Tracing the interlinked trajectories of a small but charismatic group of young artists—including Chris Johanson, Barry McGee, Ed Templeton, Mike Mills, and the late Margaret Kilgallen—from their common roots in America’s urban and suburban hinterlands to the creative mecca of Manhattan, the film is unequivocally self-mythologizing but at least wears its heart on its sleeve. Friendship and fun are repeatedly emphasized over the significance of the work, and while the feel-good factor does tend to preclude conventional analysis of what’s going on in the art itself, as a portrait of an attitude, Rose’s project is oddly coherent. (Mills: “I think nerds are the dispossessed who inherit the creative earth. If you’re not dispossessed, why make art?” Jo Jackson: “I got subcultural when I was in the seventh grade.”)

Beautiful Losers often returns to the centrality of a do-it-yourself methodology. Alleged is presented as a skin-of-the-teeth operation that was ultimately doomed by its inability to compete with established dealers—those with a professional interest may wonder about the details of Rose’s dark allusions to “serious trouble” with the big boys. The artists, for their part, dilate on subcultural backgrounds in graffiti art, punk rock, and skateboarding. Especially skateboarding. Alleged’s 1992 group show “Minimal Tricks” is presented as a watershed in both the history of “skateboard art” and the visibility of the gallery, a review of the show in skate rag Thrasher facilitating a tour to Hollywood and nudging the niche gently toward the mainstream.

“The Independents,” a 1997 group show, upped the commercial ante still further, but what seems to have sealed the deal was a lavish tour to Tokyo in 2001, bankrolled by a canny Japanese promoter. According to artist Stephen Powers, the funders “invented the myth, perpetuated the myth, encouraged us to be the myth.” His distaste for the incursion of big money is patent, but Geoff McFetridge’s awkwardly self-justificatory account of working with “big clients” like Pepsi makes for a necessary, if uncomfortable, counterpoint. Ultimately, this is art that, as Rose freely admits, often came from the commercial realm and has in some cases returned to it. Cultural history has a way of refusing convenient linearity; perhaps only attitude abides, and Beautiful Losers has that in spades.

Beautiful Losers is currently playing in select theaters.

Michael Wilson