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Barely Illegal

Beautiful Losers Charts A Path From Street To Commodity

GRAFFITI BRIDGE: (below) Thomas Campbell's "Welcome To Attachee"

By Bret McCabe | Posted 7/27/2005

Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture

At the Contemporary Museum through Aug. 6

The 1990s have finally arrived in Baltimore—1990s art, that is. The Contemporary Museum’s two-part Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture presents a thumbnail overview of subcultural American street art, those multidisciplinary and multifaceted works nurtured by-qua-feeding off mainstream popular and rarefied art cultures. These works are new and fresh and fab and wow—unless, of course, you recall all those zines, comics, album covers, graffiti, show fliers, skateboards, posters, T-shirts, unexhibited and tossed-off sketches, paintings, mixed-media afterthoughts, guerrilla filmmaking, mail art, pseudoconceptual eye-pokes, sarcastic installation mockery, and uncomfortable performance pieces that have bubbled out of almost every U.S. city with an art school since the late 1970s.

What Beautiful Losers lacks due to its infelicitous marketing—nit-picking that “and” in the title: this art and these artists never doubted their credibility, and the work itself convincingly argues street culture is contemporary art—it makes up for with a genuine enthusiasm for the attitude. The exhibit’s first installment, Painting, Sculpture, and Installation Art (Photography and Video and Design and Ephemera opens Aug. 18), wisely greets its visitors with a quick history lesson. In the exhibition’s first room are pieces from Raymond Pettibon, Keith Haring, and Futura, a troika of American older brothers to the work exhibited. Haring and Futura—formerly Futura 2000—bubbled out of the 1970s literal street-art practices of graffiti and tagging. Futura was one of the first graf artists to show in a gallery; Haring, alongside Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat, was one of New York’s impish 1980s wunderkinds made a star by an art market that fetishized his quickly created “street drawings” made on sidewalks, subways, and building facades. And the works here are textbook examples of their wares—Haring’s seemingly agitated sexless forms in white chalk in this 1984 untitled piece, the dynamic colors and bold lines in Futura’s glossy “Lenny’s Lesson.”

The New Yorkness of Haring and Futura is reinforced by the monitor screening Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver’s 1983 graffiti documentary Style Wars sitting between them. In the years since the mid-1970s “street art” has come to signify a specifically urban and, in some respects, East Coast aspect of underground art. It is grittily and quickly made with easily available materials, and sometimes arguably illegal to practice. They’re highly stylized and sometimes blend into their urban surroundings, hiding in plain sight.

Los Angeles’ Raymond Pettibon, who started creating his own highly personal take on anti-art in the mid-1970s, represents a completely different vector. Stark, superficially crude in form and content, and highly, if idiosyncratically, personal, Pettibon’s early booklets, album covers, fliers, and posters define a certain strand of 1980s-’90s anti-artists, a Bukoswki of the visual. And Losers dead-horse beats Pettibon’s Left Coast geography with 2004’s “Untitled (This Wave),” a wall-sized drawing of a surfer catching a The Endless Summer-perfect curl, an idyll scathingly undercut by Pettibon’s hand-lettered commentary, this wave would be the perfect wave if there was not someone on it.

The two-dimensional works in this part of Beautiful Losers practically spring from these two wells—the subversive action of the NYC street artists and the subversive interior of Pettibon’s liberating pessimism. A series of phone-booth and bus-stop ads that get riffed into alien-looking cartoon beings in the work of Brian Donnelly, aka Kaws, turns NYC street action into meta-commentary. Chris Johanson’s deadpan sexual paintings are extrapolations of Pettibon’s germinating seed.

What the mid-1980s into the early 1990s heralded for street art was—as with its kin alternative culture—merely faster absorption by mainstream markets; and the Losers artists that address that fact are the ones whose works leave a more indelible, if slippery, impression. Mike Mills’ career straddles the commercial and art worlds; his Losers installation offers a chance to see how such ideas flowed freely between his music videos and artworks. More visually impressive is the work of Ryan McGinness, who no longer separates art-art from commercial art in his Manhattan factory, fusing the two—be they the dazzling wall-installation universe “Flocci Non Facio” shown here or his hand-painted skateboards—into a singular idea. (The noticeable absence of earlier conventional-qua-underground artists such as Pettibon contemporary Jim Shaw on both the walls and in the accompanying catalog leaves the cheerleading Losers feeling a tad stingy in mapping this vector of subculture art.)

Of course, mass-market recognition changes things forever, and it’s telling that the contemporary “street art” of Losers—which rips its name from Leonard Cohen’s famously batshit 1966 novel of psychedelic boho sex—visually recalls more the art-art work of 1990s darlings such as Christian Schumann and Trenton Doyle Hancock than stuff you’d actually see in the street. So while the motorized mannequins spray-painting the walls in Losers are momentarily witty, the impression is less that graf can be as automated as any commercial-printing process and more that you’re visiting a slightly more hip animatronic Bear Jamboree.

At least Losers gets the vibe right. The works overstuff the Contemporary, staring you straight in the face once you enter, hanging from the ceiling, sitting on the floor, and sprawling up and around the walls; the space is so pleasantly busy that it’s hard to match title card to work, creating a gallery-going experience akin to instant immersion and leaving a lasting impression that is something to trumpet: This stuff is all around you.

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