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Prodigal Son

IT'S 8 O'CLOCK ON A RECENT FRIDAY NIGHT, AND the circus is in town. Well, not exactly the circus, but at the 6150 art complex on Wilshire something unusual is going on. Scribble & Scripture, a new show at the Roberts & Tilton gallery, is much more akin to a "festival of the now" than your standard white-cube affair. Art-a-palooza maybe? Whatever you want to call it, it's going off. Tommy Guerrero, best known for his monster skateboard antics as a member of the Bones Brigade back in the '80s, is easing into a tune. Meanwhile, those in the know, like the dean of the Dogtown aesthetic, Craig Stecyk, and longboard legend Herbie Fletcher, as well as a parking lot full of lucky lookie-loos, take in both the cultural scenery and the iconic renderings of erstwhile underground artists Barry McGee, Phil Frost and Thomas Campbell.

"Three nights ago, I was literally having a meltdown at a Starbucks," says Aaron Rose, the curator and the man behind this evening's multifaceted affair of art, assemblage and performance. Sporting a coyly angled pillbox hat and a pair of well-worn Birkenstock mocs, Rose slept little the week leading up to the February 15 opening, and — judging by his rail-thin torso — he's eaten even less. "Just trying to make sure that all of this works out has been insane. Between the artists and the gallery and the parking lot people [a jack-knifed delivery truck featuring arte povre artifacts and stacks of monitors playing animated videos acts as a prelude to the show], it's been a lot to keep going. Not to mention that it's been raining all week, which doesn't help when one of your artists is working outside."

In these ADD-plagued times, it's a lot of work to be interesting. Back in the mythical "old days," all it took to have an art show was a jug of dago red, two berets and a spare set of bongos. Times have changed. The blockbuster mentality that has all but destroyed Hollywood has slithered out through the cineplex doors and invaded every aspect of our lives. Quality has given way to an abundance of fireworks and flag waving, making it more difficult than ever to separate the good stuff from the chaff. Thomas Campbell puts on an otherworldly display. Photos by Ted Soqui (top) and courtesy Roberts & Tilton Gallery

Occasionally, however, this predominantly commerce-fueled impetus to "take it to the next level" does reap more noble rewards. The secret — as any good cook will confirm — is the quality of the ingredients. In this show's case, what makes it all so good is that the ingredients are more or less sprung from the same stock. Scribble & Scripture's artists have been plucked from a loosely affiliated group most recently tagged as "The Disobedients" in a special issue of Tokion magazine. In other contexts, they've also been dubbed the "New Folk" or "the Mission School" for the San Francisco neighborhood whence a number of them hail.

Whatever label you like, the movement's origins date back to the late-'80s crash that pulled the rug out from under the "money-for-nothing-chicks-for-free" mentality that had infected the institutional art world as much as Wall Street. The crash paved the way for a gang of DIY-ers that favored Dickies over Armani and ice-cold 40s over flutes of Dom. Following a decade or so of flourishing in America's underground kid culture, these artists (a roster which also includes filmmakers Spike Jonze, Harmony Korine and Mike Mills) have recently been making aboveground moves in the art world proper and in pop culture in general. Works by Barry McGee. Photos courtesy Roberts & Tilton Gallery

As is the case with their New Folk brethren, Barry McGee, Phil Frost and Thomas Campbell have been heavily influenced by contemporary culture in all its gloriously high and low permutations: skateboarding, graffiti, punk rock, hip-hop and fashion. Their work, rife with its raw immediacy and unabashed angst, began showing in offbeat spaces like Rose's Alleged Gallery in New York, Marsea Goldberg's New Image Art here (as well as the now-defunct George's on Vermont), and Lazar & Smith's Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco, just to mention a few venues. In recent years, the movement has taken over some venerable, upscale stages. New York's MOMA, Paris' Palais de Tokyo and both the Whitney and Venice biennials all have featured artists from this hybrid hooligan school.

For gallerist Bennett Roberts, a veteran of the L.A. art wars, the desire to capture the moment meant one thing: "Basically, I picked Aaron Rose and he brought the rest," he says, sitting in his gallery a few weeks before the mayhem was to commence, underplaying his own conceptual contributions, such as radically reconstructing the space to suit the show. "I had been to his gallery in New York [Alleged] and we'd met a couple of times, so when I heard he was closing the Annex [Rose's defunct Chung King Road project space], I called immediately and asked if he'd be interested in curating a show for us. Suffering for art? Aaron Rose brings it all back home. (Photo by Ted Soqui)

"It's really bad form to show up late for the meal and take credit."

Not long after that initial conversation, Rose called Roberts and they set up a meeting. "I thought he'd have some slides, maybe a page of words," Roberts smiles. "But instead, Aaron presented Julie [Roberts' wife and partner] and I with two full-on proposals. Bound pages of images and text. I mean, we're talking about an extremely thorough package."

Rose said that after they decided on a painting show over a graphics presentation, Scribble & Scripture sprang to life. "Things began to come together in the way they do when things are supposed to happen. Pieces fall into place," Rose recalls. "As opposed to when you're trying to force things and nothing's coming together."

The show, combining elements of painting, architecture and design, zines, silk-screen editions, and art multiples, much created specifically for this show, provides plenty for an audience to sample. For starters, the Otto Design Group reconstructed the actual gallery itself. Incorporating common materials like plywood and 2-by-4's, Phil Otto and his team have done what he calls a kind of "visual sampling." It's Otto's belief that "by using ordinary materials and placing them in an atypical environment, the experience becomes extraordinary."

That may be true, but it didn't stop one of the painters, San Francisco's Barry McGee, from requesting a van be flipped over in the parking lot so that he could fill it with drawings, bottles, detailed VCRs and the aforementioned videos.

"For one thing, the space just felt a little small for the three of us," McGee says. "And then I walked out into the parking lot and saw all these Lexus SUVs all lined up and this big gray art complex, and I just felt like it might be more interesting to do something out there."

Currently taking up an entire wall of MOMA's "Drawing Now" show as well as appearing at 2001's Venice Biennale, not to mention being featured in the not-too-distant past at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and UCLA's Hammer Museum, McGee is the most art world-approved of the three painters featured in S&S. McGee's world-weary faces and fallen hobos serve to remind us that life, in the modern sense, can be a real fucking cross to bear. Characters crawl, and pray, and scratch their bellies across massive Guernica-like murals as well as on clusters of discarded pint bottles that McGee buys from down-and-out neighbors for a dollar a pop.

For the soft-spoken McGee, known in global graffiti circles as "Twist," S&S is mostly about having a good time with old friends, especially coming off a year during which he had shows in London, Paris, San Francisco and Milan. If that wasn't tiring enough, he's a recently minted father. "I'd like to be able to say that [after becoming a father] I'm less angry and more gentle, but that's not the case. I'm still really angry about things I'm seeing in the world right now, and that kind of response is something I tend to think of as a kind of youthful-rebellion response. It's just that now more than ever, I want to dig a cave that me and my daughter can crawl into and hide, so I can protect her." (McGee's wife, the artist Margaret Kilgallen, died of cancer in 2001 during the pregnancy.)

In Rose's words, Thomas Campbell is the soul surfer of the bunch. A modern-day vagabond, Campbell can be found on any given day just about anywhere in the world as long as there's good surf. He works in many mediums: drawing, painting, photography, film, music. Campbell's flowing murals and painting clusters are filled with a mélange of abstraction and otherworldly beings — part animal, part alien, part prehistoric creature — and often contain cryptic affirmations like "Be Here Now" or "Come Home to Your Fucking Self." They'd be just as at home on a gallery wall as they would be on the underside of the old Santa Monica pier. To do the show, Campbell came back from Sri Lanka where he was shooting footage for his latest cinematic effort, a follow-up to The Seedling, Campbell's 1999 full-length surfari film, which is a gleefully art-damaged companion to the surf classic Endless Summer.

Not long off a well-received show at Colette in Paris, Campbell enjoys a chance to drop in on different cities and their respective scenes. "I live up in Santa Cruz. It's a pretty quiet beach town, and I don't really need all that much on a cultural level to get excited and work, it just kind of happens. Then I come to places like this and it's kind of overwhelming. I generally go to bed around 12 and wake up around 7 or 8. So, when I come to something like this, I might be working until like 6 or so in the morning. It's just such a whole different kind of thing than what I'm used to . . . But being in a show with all of these guys, after all these years, including Aaron and Brendan [Fowler, Rose's longtime sidekick], it's all come full circle in a really nice way."

Soon after doing a solo show at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, Phil Frost enlisted Aaron Rose to help navigate a U-Haul filled with 4-by-8-foot sheets of plywood, logs and old-style barrels across the country for Scribble & Scripture. Following the opening, he'll be in a group show at Hofstra University on Long Island.

Though a member of the family, Frost also exists in a world of his own pyscho-primitive design. His insanely dense panels are covered in intricately woven primal patterns called "glyphs" by the artist. Made with Pentel Presto (correcting fluid), they transport one deep into our collective primordial past while at the same time testing the outer reaches of the pending apocalypse.

A reggae mix tape pulses in the background as Frost bears down on his work in the days leading up to the opening. "I used to use words in my paintings that were really more sounds made out of strings of consonants, and then they became gestures that ultimately began to express themselves simply as patterns," Frost almost whispers, each word measured just as carefully as the teardrop "glyph" he's whiting in as we speak.

Frost recently moved to Albany for work purposes. It may sound far removed from the heady Lower East Side scene in New York, where he had been making a name for himself, but it is a fine place to drag from local ravines the logs he sometimes uses as canvasses. Labor intensive is how to describe a creative process that often finds Frost hunched over a canvas surrounded by a cadre of assistants, all a little zoned out from extended exposure to Presto fumes. Process aside, the finished product is a monument to the wonders of obsessive expression. The abstractly washed backgrounds and myriad tribal patterns meld together to remind the viewer that no matter how loud the white noise of modern life gets, the "shaman state" is still attainable.

 

THE CROSS-COUNTRY SOJOURN WITH FROST — and even this show — is emblematic of the kind of delicious suffering Aaron Rose has been doing for art ever since his first Alleged Gallery show back in 1992 on NYC's Lower East Side. After all, being a gallerist was never a calling that Rose aspired to.

Rose first landed in New York, in 1989, as one half of an acoustic punk rock duo named Cat Furniture. Not long out of high school in Los Angeles and fleeing a single bad year at Art Center in Pasadena, Rose was primed to devour Manhattan's downtown life in all of its sordid splendor. Without so much as a coin in his pegged pants and a bandmate who would ultimately be picked up walking naked down 14th Street in the midst of a Jesus episode, Rose turned to painting as a means of making sense of his epic and romantically clichéd urban pilgrimage. When Jane's Addiction impresario Perry Farrell accepted Rose's paintings for exhibition on the inaugural Lollapalooza in 1991, he was off on his magic-carpet ride.

After that, a gig selling folk art at Little Rickie, a funky East Village emporium, led to a mural commission on the store's exterior. The mural caught the eye of an art girl who was vacating her storefront on Ludlow and Houston. The space, next to the bar Max Fish, which was then a dive bar and not yet the artiste joint it was destined to be, became Rose's Alleged Gallery. Named after the prayer candles bought in downtown bodegas (i.e., "alleged good luck candle"), the space at first seemed merely like a damn good place to mount an art show, which, of course, seemed like a damn good reason to throw a party.

The first show contained Rose's own work, which drew heavily from the symbols of his California skateboard youth. "Me and my roommates were like, 'People actually showed up!' I mean, it was mostly overflow from Max Fish. We kind of couldn't believe it. We even sold a couple things."

In the autumn of 1993, drawing once again on the street and surf imagery of his West Coast roots, Rose put together another show, "Minimal Tricks." It was a skateboard art show with a roster — including Ed Templeton, Craig Stecyk, Mark Gonzales, among others — compiled with the help of a friend's brother who lived in L.A.: Adam Spiegel, a.k.a. Spike Jonze.

The show was a hit. Or, at least, it was a great big party with a lot of people who were mostly not from the establishment art world but rather from the music and film enclaves. Once again work sold. Word spread throughout both the downtown underground and the highly transient and aesthetic-minded skate community. The whole thing was a fucking blast. At least for the moment, Rose was on a path that felt right.

More Alleged shows followed. For the next two years, Rose worked at Little Rickie by day and kept Alleged Gallery open from 6 to midnight. Skaters hung out, and people in the know, including the Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth and other indie darlings, made the scene. Naturally, like any scene worthy of note, the "real party" happened in the backroom until all hours of the morning. Soon, Rose landed a job at MTV producing, among other things, a series of short film promos that aired mostly late at night. The network also enlisted him to curate art exhibitions in the halls of their eternally '80s-damaged building. In both cases, like just about everything Rose puts his spin on, the alumni of those endeavors are a who's who of the moment: Jonze, Korine, artists Chris Johanson and Rita Ackerman, to name just a few.

Following a lucrative gig in 1997 curating art for an Australian version of Lollapalooza, Rose returned to New York with some money in his pockets and some time on his hands. In rapid succession, he met his soon-to-be wife, designer Susan Cianciolo, and completed a business course at NYU. The business course came in handy when he decided to put together a plan to open a new Alleged Gallery — this time up on Prince Street just east of Soho — that he would launch with a show called "The Independents." Works by Phil Frost. Photos courtesy Roberts & Tilton Gallery

"The Independents," which opened on Halloween of 1997, was another, even bigger, hit. Rose was gaining momentum, primarily curating shows at mostly underground galleries around the world as well as a show for New York gallery legend Holly Solomon called "City Folk," which he co-curated with Carlo McCormick. Even the high-brow art world was starting to take notice of the then still-in-his-20s Rose and the rogue artists he showcased. When Rose's sublet on Prince Street finally ran out, he decided to make the leap to Chelsea, where many of the Soho galleries were migrating to escape skyrocketing rents. Looking back now, Rose believes it was a move that would precipitate the beginning of the end of his New York run.

"We definitely lost a big chunk of our core group that used to just kind of hang around. And things weren't just happening anymore either. I was forcing them, trying to make stuff happen. And when I started losing artists to the bigger galleries, I had trouble accepting what I believe now to be the truth, which is that what happened at Alleged — that feeling that you're in the epicenter of this amazing thing — it's a fleeting state of being. Things like what we had at Alleged exist to incubate talent, and ultimately it's impossible to continue them or to compete with the establishment galleries. And I kind of killed myself trying to do that, I think."

Feeling like a pit bull on a chain from the combination of Manhattan rents, a waning marriage and a too toxic taste for the good life, Rose soon decided to return to his SoCal roots in search of sanctuary.

Initially the plan was to open a project space in L.A.'s then-nascent Chinatown art scene. Compared to Manhattan, it would require decidedly less overhead, which, in turn, would liberate Rose from having to pimp and hustle to keep up the pace. "But right away, I began to battle with all those same feelings again," recalls Rose. "Not much had changed other than the city I was living in. The move itself just wasn't enough of a departure from what we'd left."

Complicating matters further was the fact that Los Angeles gallery foot traffic was dubious at best, leaving Rose even more time than ever to sit idly glancing back and forth at the angels and the devils that had taken up residence on either shoulder.

Finally, as Rose minded the empty shop one day, the epiphany that it was over turned out to be the only customer to come through the door. "It was wild," Rose says, sliding a Marlboro red out of his shirt pocket. "It was a Saturday afternoon and Brendan and I had been sitting around, and it had been like two hours since anyone had walked in, and we both just kind of looked at each other and we just knew."

Less than a year later, looking out over the crowd at 6150, it feels like Rose made the right call. As much an "experience" as a show, S&S offers a glimpse at a creative universe parallel to, but generally not a part of, the typical gallery-hopping excursion. To take the whole "experience" premise another step further, Rose and Roberts enlisted the design collective alife out of New York to install a store in the gallery that specializes in "art products." Also, Fowler has produced a companion, 150-page zine entitled 3D Poster Set.

It's getting late, and the pre-opening show for friends and family is officially over, but hardly anyone's leaving. Instead, groups of three and four at a time take turns jumping inside McGee's flipped-over delivery-van installation. A security guard watches over the installation, because some of McGee's more ardent fans have a tendency to steal his work, which is understandable, if not forgivable, since the thing about graffiti is that it generally lives out in the world, free from the confines of the clean, bland cube.

McGee and his righthand man, AMAZE, have already painted — legally — a large panel on the side of the 6150 complex that faces Wilshire. The mural contains, among other things, a trademark Twist hobo face as well as "Eat shit George W" scrawled lovingly through the middle of the piece. McGee's made it well known lately that he has certain apprehensions about his current trajectory: Primarily, he's worried that as the establishment art world's embrace grows, the actual audience for his work shrinks. "Even this show, you know, it'll more than likely be the same 200 cool kids," McGee reckons. And for the most part, he's probably right. Although by Saturday, the day of the public opening, Bennett Roberts has already begun fielding calls from all over the country about the show. Word's out.

Pulling off the lot at 6150, doing my best to skirt a young couple trading tokes on a joint, I remember asking Rose whether Scribble & Scripture felt like a reunion or a continuation of a growing scene. "What I say about this group of artists is that I don't believe that they've put out their Nevermind yet," he says, looking over the crowd that's in no hurry to leave the show. "At the time, the people that really knew music were well aware of Nirvana and all of those bands, but as far as the general public, it was all just beginning."LA

Scribble & Scripture is at Roberts & Tilton Gallery, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., through April 1.