September 2008, Beautiful Losers

 Thomas Campbell, Paris, 2003. Photo: Benjamin Deberdt, courtesy Sidetrack Films

Art on Film: “Beautiful Losers”

In a dreamlike sequence, low camera work follows as Mark Gonzales, lying on his skateboard, weaves in and around cars on a crowded highway outside of San Francisco. Mike Mills bombs a pristine suburban garage with the words, “Lets be human beings.” Margaret Kilgallen and Barry McGee wander train yards throwing up hobo tags, and Stephen Powers scrawls his moniker ESPO on the streets of New York. Meanwhile, Ed Templeton, backtracking in front of the camera, talks about how the act of creating comes naturally to a child and some people are lucky enough never to let it go.

“Beautiful Losers,” a new film by Aaron Rose, the artist and independent curator of a large-scale exhibition of the same name, profiles ten artists, who piece together an animated—albeit discombobulated—portrait of a generation of urban and suburban exiles who harnessed the DIY spirit into an art movement in the 1990s. Reminiscent of the pop and conceptual art of the 1960s, they drew new inspiration from the streets—early skateboarding, graffiti, hip-hop and punk cultures—and found creative optimism amidst the urban tunnels and suburban junkyards.

“It was communication in its simplest form,” Barry McGee explains, sitting against the wall of his West Coast studio, his gaze diverted down, finger-painting the dust on the floor. “It doesn’t have any of the various trappings of the art world.” The renegade artist behind the TWISTER tag, McGee and others grew up holding tight an anti-authoritarian edge known to escort such subcultures to the fringe.

 Mike Mills, cover drawing for Relax Magazine, 2002, offset print, 20x16 inches
 courtesy Sidetrack Films

Interior of Aaron Rose's Alleged Gallery, circa 1999. Photo: Cynthia Connelly, courtesy Sidetrack Films

In 1992, when Rose opened the Alleged Gallery in an old grocery storefront on Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side, it quickly became an arena for like-minded independents. Disillusioned by the budding influx of commercial imagery, they identified as oddball losers and created with abandon. Their work, while varied and individual, collectively registers the friction between childlike exploration and the melancholy of daily life—a collection of dreams laced with underdog ideals.

“It must be the nerds—the dispossessed—who inherit the creative earth,” says Mike Mills, the LA-based artist, filmmaker, and graphic designer, whose simplified creations are at once charged with humor and sadness. “If not, why spend your life making art?” Holding close to his “indie-street cred,” Mills has since become one of the most sought after designers in the industry.
“Life isn’t just about the problems—it’s problematic,” explains Chris Johansen, a San Francisco-based artist who appears in the film speaking of the troublesome and the absurd while addressing his canvas—a highly conceptualized, yet seemingly haphazard, maze of color.

Problematic as it may be, Rose has committed to giving reverence to the graf-rats and daydreamers of the urban and suburban streets who, like himself, began creating young and never stopped. While inadvertently toasting the relationship between art and film and the ability to distill a message of one’s own, Rose shows how these artists and their work collapsed long-harbored distinctions between art forms.

Barry McGee and ESPO. Photo courtesy: Sidetrack Films, courtesy Sidetrack Films

ESPO, Queens Boulevard, New York, 1998. Photo: Cheryl Dunn, courtesy Sidetrack Films

“Freedom of the press is guaranteed to those who own one,” states Shepard Fairey. Filmed in his studio, the young artist tips back in his chair like a restless schoolboy, yet seems to know a thing or two about reaching an audience and staying true. “The only difference between commercial art and fine art is intent.” Fairey’s graffiti tactics and “Obey Giant” sticker designs since evolved into a worldwide street phenomenon.

Margaret Kilgallen, perhaps the most talented in the group, who employed folk-inspired figures in her community-based collaborations, gave deliberate consideration to the urban landscape yet recognized the fallacy of seeking perfection and success. “My hand will always be imperfect because it is human,” she says, ignoring the camera as she outlines one of her signature graphic letters. “It’s the part that is off that makes it interesting.”

None of these artists started out looking for commercial success, and “Beautiful Losers” is a celebration of a creative movement born of that very spirit. Yet the landscape of popular culture changed, introducing a new juxtaposition of independent art and mainstream markets, that quickly swept many artists up as commodities in a world of high-end galleries and product design.
Geoff McFetridge, the LA-based painter and graphic designer, recently created images in his signature post-pop style for a Pepsi One campaign. Rose, himself has been developing marketing ads for top corporations, including Nike, the film’s sponsor. Surely the artists wrestle with the crossover. Mills directly considers the complicated nature of success when awarded by the same mainstream that initially alienated him—like “winning back the girl who rejected me in high school.” Despite critical murmurs from the street, such commercial endeavors have proven successful in assuring ad and marketing executives that they’ve found their secret weapon—incorporating subcultures, once brushed off as subversive amateurs, into popular culture.

 Margaret Kilgallen in her studio. Photo: Cheryl Dunn
 courtesy Sidetrack Films

While many of these artists have shown in major museums throughout the world, Barry McGee, Chris Johansen, and Jo Jackson never did any commercial work. Ed Templeton and Thomas Campbell have accepted selective ventures in product design, but have maintained their ties to skateboarding and surf culture, respectively—environments that effectively supported them as young artists. And after a brief stint, Stephen Powers emphatically swore off the commercial world, vowing to keep his work grounded in the streets.

Unfortunately, Kilgallen never faced this particular challenge, her life cut short in 2001 due to complications with breast cancer. Rose’s footage captures her elegant rebellion and fierce talent through angled shots of her bold installations. “From a distance a line looks straight,” she says, bending over a small painting on the floor of her studio, concentrating her steady hand. More and more, visual artists face a dilemma as artistic expression collides with an ever-enveloping pop culture, as selling becomes selling out, independent becomes mainstream, and sometimes even the losers win. Because, “when you look closely, you can always see the line waver.”

“Beautiful Losers” opened at the IFC Center in New York in August. It will screen at Landmark Lumiere in San Francisco on September 5th, and continue its tour of various cities through the fall.

For more information on “Beautiful Losers,” visit

Jericho Parms

Jericho Parms is a writer in New York City.

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