Over the past few years the ICA has established itself as a progressive, open-minded space through several exhibitions spotlighting innovative and offbeat artists. With the 2008 show Street Level showcasing three artists who draw from street culture, and of course the landmark 2009 exhibition Shepard Fairey: Supply and Demand, the first museum retrospective of the notorious and influential street artist, the museum is helping an increasingly popular but still considered illegal form of public art gain acceptance in the mainstream.
The 2008 documentary Beautiful Losers tracks the development of a community in the early 1990’s surrounding Aaron Rose (who co-directed) and his Alleged Gallery in New York. For years this space hosted a group of friends whose creative energies range from graffiti and skateboarding to painting and filmmaking, and Rose collects a series of artist interviews- including Fairey and filmmaker Harmony Korine– and archive footage to explore and examine a sub-culture that has since burst into the public eye.
The film weaves in and out between a number of artists discussing their histories and experiences within the art community, as well as scenes of their gallery shows, tagging excursions, and studios. It begins as more of a discussion of the general subculture tied into the DIY and street art movement, with clips of skateboarders and punks expressing themselves through posters and anarchic tags. The connections between those being interviewed are unclear, and most aren’t even given identifying name cards.
As it progresses, however, Beautiful Losers comes together as it brings focus to the Alleged Gallery and the relationships between its contributors. With his shows devoted to skateboard art and street culture Rose collected a multi-talented crew of artists and friends who saw art as a means of sharing themselves and collaborating with others, with little in the way of ambition or profitable aims. Their inspirations and intentions behind their works are investigated along with excellent shots of them actually creating and hanging their pieces. It really gets interesting when the sudden explosion of popularity experienced by several of these artists is exposed, spurring conversations about the advantages of fame and the incredible pressure and fears that accompany it.
With a background in such an un-commercial, almost pure underground community, the stigma against selling out is fierce, and with many of these artists achieving big-name gallery shows and contracts with major corporations, they have to rationalize their own creative spirit with their desire to support themselves financially. Sculptor and painter Geoff Mcfetridge became a graphic designer and animator for companies like Pepsi and Comcast, but insists on maintaining his own style and vision in their advertisements along with continuing to show his personal work in galleries. Articulate filmmaker Mike Mills– who gives one of the more insightful interviews- directs car commercials and music videos but also pours himself into personal film projects like 2005’s Thumbsucker. And of course, Shepard Fairey himself can now bring his OBEY stickers and rebellious murals into the most notable museum and gallery spaces, while his image of President Obama has spurred countless imitations and appropriations.
While it is a little disappointing that this is yet another art movement seemingly dominated by white men, the range of aesthetics and strong footage of the artwork itself will give any viewer an eclectic visual feast. Highlighted artists include Barry McGee, who fuses op-art patterns and video installation, Thomas Campbell, who creates colorful and playful abstract paintings, Steve Powers, whose confrontational imagery merges text and graphics, and the late Margaret Kilgallen, whose works opened up cartoon worlds with bold women and tall trees.
Beautiful Losers is an informative and visually interesting documentary that sheds light on a specific portion of the burgeoning street art movement of the 1990’s. The interviews with prominent figures give insight into the lines running between commercial success and independent creative drive, and the archive footage explores seminal gallery shows and the artists’ working processes. It starts off as loose and meandering, but gradually pulls itself together to become a fascinating film for any fan of street culture. It’s available on Netflix Instant and the iTunes store, as well as for purchase at retailers like Amazon.