As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, Valley boy and Art Center dropout Aaron Rose caught a Greyhound to NYC and opened a storefront gallery devoted to art objects generated by the skateboard, graffiti and hip-hop subcultures. While the visual vernacular of urban street culture had been allowed its 15 minutes during the early ’80s as part of the general re-pictorializing of the art world after a decade of unmarketable and unpopular idea art, only a handful of savvy faux-guttersnipes (Basquiat, Haring, et al.) were allowed to remain at the table. Trouble was, nobody told the skaters, writers and MCs, who kept right on evolving their respective art forms as if the art world didn’t even matter.
By the time Rose’s Alleged Gallery opened its doors in 1992, urban street culture had already penetrated deeply into the dark recesses of Midwestern suburbia, and a massive untapped demographic of teen thrashers awaited the latest word in skate tech and b-boy fashion with bated breath. This middle-class filtration resulted in a culturewide wave of artpunk rebels with a more-than-passing familiarity with guerrilla marketing strategies and the history of graphic design. The market abhors a vacuum, and as corporations began targeting this latest youthquake, its visual stylists — the cream of whom showed with Rose — began to get mainstream media and art-world attention, culminating with S.F.’s Yerba Buena Center’s “Beautiful Losers” curated by Rose and Strength Magazine’s Christian Strike, which previously opened at the reconstituted Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and is currently mounted at the OC Museum of Art in Newport Beach, before moving on to Baltimore, Europe and Japan.
The show breaks down into three sections: first, a history primer featuring the usual suspects: Basquiat, authentic graffiti writer Futura, photodocumentarians Larry Clark, Glen Friedman and Craig Stecyk, crabby penmen R. Crumb and Raymond Pettibon, etc. No revelations here, though it’s always good to see Pettibon’s work displayed in its natural state as zines (albeit in a plexiglass vitrine), and Wes Humpston’s Dogtown decks have the beat aura of holy relics. Actually, to get to the chronological beginning of the show, you have to pass a couple of droll animatronic taggers (I’d pay to see them installed on the containment wall of nearby Disneyland) and what is logically the show’s final act: a massive lobby display of recent mass-media products — magazines, record sleeves, skateboards and posable action figures, mostly — designed by the artists in the show. It’s a bit of a spoiler to spread out this banquet of mainstream commercial penetration before depicting the hardscrabble years of wheat paste fliers and aerosol vandalism, but in a way, it alerts the viewer to the “Losers” ’ motivating philosophy: exposure by any means necessary, up to and including Nike ads and museum retrospectives (or both at the same time).
The meat in this curatorial sandwich is section two — the series of large galleries featuring the works familiar to anyone who regularly checks out the UCLA Hammer Project spaces or Roberts & Tilton Gallery. Most high-profile in art-world terms is the work of the San Francisco Mission School: Barry “Twist” McGee’s trippy Eightball-esque caricatures, his late wife Margaret Killgallen’s handsome global signage pastiche and Chris Johanson’s — well, normally I’d say something like “rickety 3-D Red Grooms–style cityscapes” but Johanson diverges abruptly from the party line here. Those rickety cityscapes were already my favorite things to emerge from the Missionary camp, but Johanson’s bizarre mutant polychrome geodesic walk-in teepee, with its chromatic TV drum circle made up of 11 individual video feeds on separate monitors, is by far the most surprising and peculiar element in the “Beautiful Losers” show, though it would blend in better at a Rainbow Gathering than the X Games.
This hippie reference is more than just another example of the stylistic nostalgia that permeates the show. The appropriated title “Beautiful Losers” is telling. Leonard Cohen’s 1966 experimental novel of lyrical, psychedelic, pansexual bohemianism was considered to be the most literate exploration of the emerging hippy ethos. “God is alive, magic is afoot,” he affirmed, “God is a foot.” From its organic emergence in a few square blocks of the Haight-Ashbury to its unprecedented global dissemination, the hippy amalgamation of innovative music, fashion, visual art, politics, architecture and design, public spectacle, recreational and sacramental use of psychoactives, and alternative media cast a long and apparently still inescapable shadow over subsequent subcultures. In his catalog essay for “Beautiful Losers,” Rose is unequivocal: “A bitter hangover from the ideals of that generation has been with me since the day I was born.”
Ironically, the mass absorption that was perceived as the failure of hippie culture is the very kind of penetration the skateboard culture community desires (only the hippies were 50 times more successful). The cohesiveness, authenticity and epochal momentum of hippie culture (and the widespread societal measures taken to ensure against any recurrence, from the elimination of public space to instantaneous corporate sponsorship) have made it virtually impossible for any subsequent cultural resistance to compete on the same terms.
The crux of this paradox is brought into sharp focus by this very museum show; it just works too well. From Ryan McGinness’s elegant enamel-on-wood-panel Lari Pittman riffs to Cynthia Connolly’s charming application of the Bernd-and-Hilla-Becher strategy (of photodocumenting variations in industrial architecture) to convenience store ice machines, most of the art in “Beautiful Losers” adapts itself effortlessly to the visual and conceptual conventions of contemporary art and museum display — and to the baggage of cultural elitism that goes along with it.
Which isn’t necessarily an inherently evil thing. But it calls into question the claim that this work is the authentic expression of the subcultures with which it is associated. I love graffiti, but what I see in “Beautiful Losers” bears little resemblance either stylistically or socially to what is a complex, organic, collective and considerably more darkly pigmented artistic phenomenon. Stripped of its already politically ambivalent subcultural cachet, most of the work here is indistinguishable from what you might find in any run-of-the-mill graduate art program — some of it awesome, some of it ho-hum, most of it acting out a rebellious position just for the attention.
Which is why it’s the work done as straightforward graphic design — the work in the lobby — that winds up being the most impressive. CalArts grad and Beastie insider Geoff McFetridge is the obvious standout here. His sweet, early ’70s Uncola-style cartooning — as familiar as his graphics for Sofia Coppola’s Virgin Suicides or as obscure as a poster admonishing the public to “Support Responsible Abstraction” — strikes the perfect balance between hip retro homage and genuinely original visual communication chops. Pretty much the same holds true for Mike Mills and McGinness, whose layered dingbats make way more sense on the cover of a magazine than a stretched canvas. In fact, as evidenced by the extensive run of the Japanese glossy Relax — which has featured most of the “Beautiful Losers” — this is a cluster of visual styles that is more effective and more novel in a mass-media context than in either the streets or the museum. Underground it ain’t. If you want underground, visit the Belmont graffiti tunnel before it’s gone forever.
Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture | Orange County Museum of Art | 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach | Through May 15