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Life on the Streets

Beautiful Losers’ Second Installment Continues Its Fascinating Hodgepodge of Subcultural Movements

GARAGE DAYS: With pieces such as “Let’s Be Human Beings,” Mike Mills blurs the line between art and commercialism.

By J. Bowers | Posted 8/31/2005

Beautiful Losers: Contemporary Art and Street Culture

At the Contemporary Museum through Sept. 24

One bizarre contradiction to get out of the way: Visitors to the usually laid-back Contemporary Museum are strongly encouraged to pony up a $7 donation to see the “Photography, Video, Design, and Ephemera” finale to Beautiful Losers, the art world’s latest amazing, international-class big wet sloppy kiss to American counterculture. That’s $7 to check out art that celebrates freedom—self-expression, sex, heroes, language, graffiti, boredom, anger, adolescence, rap, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Yeah.

The logic feels a little weird, and even more so when you learn that both halves of the show’s Baltimore appearance (“Painting, Sculpture, and Installation Art” closed earlier this month) are sponsored by Nike and Scion. But the populist pop-art inside—featuring works by Dogtown skate gang and Juxtapoz veteran Craig R. Stecyk III, Kids screenwriter Harmony Korine, and Thumbsucker director Mike Mills alongside more than 100 skateboard decks, cases full of fliers and zines, and a giant Pepto-Bismol pink skull-headed Michelin man (courtesy of graffiti hero Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS)—is worth every penny.

For Beautiful Losers, the austere, square interior of the Contemporary has been transformed into a high-walled labyrinth. And there are literally surprises around every corner—within seconds of stepping into the museum, you confront photographer and filmmaker Larry Clark’s “Prostitute Gives Teenager His First Blow Job,” part of his seminal 1983 Teenage Lust series, a feathered-blond, tight-Levi’s photo essay about maturation and sexuality. The boy’s face is oddly memorable—jaded, puffy, and quietly subversive, like the youth in classical sculpture.

Other photographs are less raunchy but just as raw—skate photographer Tobin Yelland’s blown-up black-and-white shots of Californian youth explore the psychological relationship between adolescence and violence. In “Julien,” a smirking teenage boy sneaks up on his unsuspecting friend with a two-by-four studded with exposed nails—at first glance, they seem to be playing around, but it’s a compellingly dangerous game.

There are several wall-sized photo and mixed-media collages in Beautiful Losers, and all are well worth checking out, but pro skater and Toy Machine founder Ed Templeton’s mixed-media “Cul-de-sac of Lameness” is particularly excellent. Poignant, disturbing, and slyly comic by turns, Templeton combines snapshots of youth counterculture with paintings and witty spur-of-the-moment writing. One shot, capturing a walk-in on two young lovers about to get it on, is captioned: “She is 17 and he is 18 and the setting stinks of teenager.” A small, childlike painting of a kid wearing a Wal-Mart T-shirt and eye patches emblazoned with the American flag is labeled “I can’t see!” Templeton’s “Teenage Smokers” series is just as raw, depicting kids with jaded, too-old faces, blinking through plumes of cigarette smoke.

Stephen Powers’ “Endzone Dancer,” a motorized metal installation, hangs from the ceiling above a case full of Templeton’s zines. Combining the illustrative style of Golden Age comics with imagery cribbed from 1950s print advertisements, the rotating red, black, white, and sky-blue machine spits postmodern bile—including “Thanks for Nothing” and “I don’t want eternity, I don’t want an afterlife, I just want an ending.”

Other elements of the show are more unnerving than thought-provoking—Barry McGee and Josh Lazcano’s installation work features motorized automatons of hooded graffiti artists, eerily realistic, right down to their torn hoodies and emaciated frames. Tucked into the Contemporary’s alcoves, perched on trash cans and endlessly, mechanically tagging the wall, the spray-painting robots are an unsettling surprise. Photographer Terry “T-Bone” Richardson presents a series of nude self-portraits, showcasing his penis with the use of props that include a teddy bear, barbells, and cameras. Sporting a Burt Reynolds-esque handlebar mustache and an assortment of fading tattoos, including one over his heart that reads ssa, Richardson cuts a creepy figure, confronting the viewer with his gangly nude body and slightly pervy smile.

Brian Donnelly, aka KAWS, leaves his calling card on the posters and bus-stop advertisements of major cities. Defacing ads for everything from Maidenform lingerie to Calvin Klein and boxing matches, KAWS uses his trademark skull head to subvert public communication. Mike Mills blurs the line between art and commercialism in a similar fashion, with a video installation featuring clips of his short films, commercials for Gap and Nike, and the music-video work he’s done for Air, the Divine Comedy, and other bands. Surrounded by panels of his graphic design/illustration/photography work, and equipped with a rough wooden bench, it’s clear that Mills would like his viewers to sit and stay a while—but as with many of the Contemporary’s attempts at film installations, the overlapping soundtracks and visuals make it impossible to appreciate any of the work on its own merit. This might be a thinly veiled metaphor for modern media overload, but Mills should have enough confidence to let his work speak for itself, one piece at a time.

Let’s not split hairs, though—despite some missteps in installation, Beautiful Losers is a first-rate look at the art and culture of the street, fascinating to those who don’t know a skateboard from a scooter, and endlessly identifiable to the Thrasher crowd. In other words—rad.

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