Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Beautiful Losers (Sidetrack Films, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Beautiful Losers, a 2008 documentary on a New York art scene and in particular around a loosely affiliated group of artists (not all of them based in New York City!) who exhibited at a space called the Alleged Gallery (a marvelous name for a space showing the work of artists who started out, at least, with much more imagination than technique) owned by Aaron Rose, who also co-directed the film with Joshua Leonard. Of all the artists named here, a number of them have major reputations in the art world but only one, Shepard Fairey, has achieved broad-based celebrity — and that was mostly due to a piece he made after this film was finished: his famous poster with an image of Barack Obama and the word “Hope.” (It’s not every young, struggling independent artist who can legitimately claim to have influenced the outcome of a Presidential election.) At first I thought the film was just another dull documentary about an art scene, and it was hard to keep straight as to who was who and what the connection between all these seemingly disparate people were, but as the film progressed it got more and more compelling.

What was most interesting about Beautiful Losers (a rather clichéd title by now; before Rose used it as the name of a retrospective show in 2004 it was a poetry book by Leonard Cohen in the 1960’s and a song by Bob Seger in the 1970’s) is that the artists themselves began pretty much as amateurs, painting whatever they wanted and in whatever medium they wanted, and also taking the work of Andy Warhol and the other original Pop artists one step further in the blurring of lines not only between fine art and commercial art but between the art world and the world of commerce and advertising. Warhol, you’ll recall, started as an art student, became a highly successful commercial artist and then branched out into fine art, but drew on both the subject matter and the techniques of commercial art, painting branded items like Campbell’s soup cans and Brillo boxes and using his full armamentarium of commercial-art techniques, including his considerable drafting skills, in his fine art (which I’ve long interpreted as the highly skilled Warhol’s fuck-you to the abstract expressionists who had dominated the art world in the generation before his; Warhol actually seemed to be agreeing with the sneering critics and ordinary people who looked at a Jackson Pollock drip painting and said a four-year-old child could do that, and in bringing the techniques of commercial art into fine art he at least in part seemed to be rubbing his skill as a draftsman into the faces of the abstractionists and creating art he didn’t think they could do even if they’d wanted to).

The Alleged group took this one step further; starting out with no particular technical skills (a number of them said on camera that they got nothing out of art school because all the art teachers ever told them was what they couldn’t do), they exhibited at a D.I.Y. space with all the trappings of fine art and then, as both their reputations and skills improved, they got offers from the commercial art industry and eagerly sold their images to major advertisers (the “Pepsi One” advertising campaign in particular relied on their designs). One of the characteristics of these artists is that they totally blurred the lines not only between media (a number of them made paintings, took photographs and made films) but between presentations; the late Margaret Kilgallen, who quite frankly seems like the most talented member of the group (that’s art history for you: it would be the most talented member of the group who would die young!), prided herself on making paintings on the sides of trains (in homage to the hobos who had been doing graffiti on trains since long before she was born!) and other members of the group hooked up with skateboarders — some of them were skateboarders themselves — to create designs for the bottoms of skateboards, which were exhibited on the walls of Alleged as full-fledged artworks in their own right.

What distinguishes these people more than anything is the sense of play in their work and their rejection of the idea that taking money from the advertising industry constitutes “selling out”; like the musicians profiled in a recent Los Angeles Times article who are not only allowing but eagerly seeking opportunities to place their songs in commercials (at least partly because with the virtual demise of radio and MTV as outlets for new music, commercials are at least one venue in which they can promote their music and actually give people a chance to hear it, decide they like it and become a market for their records and live appearances), the artists have not only made their peace with the commercial world but have easily embraced it and the material rewards it offers. Some of the most interesting scenes in Beautiful Losers show the artists on a trip to Japan (where Rose established a satellite gallery), eagerly accepting the money and cars offered them (they painted the cars, staged a demolition derby with them, and then their sponsors simply replaced them — these parts of Beautiful Losers come off like a documentary version of the film Lost in Translation) and not having any problem at all with capitalism and its material rewards.

Indeed, for all the cranky eccentricity of many of the people shown, what’s striking about the artists in Beautiful Losers is how normal they all seem: though they may have been at least mildly rebellious youth (most of them grew up listening to punk rock at a time when it wasn’t fashionable, and saw the punk musicians as analogues to themselves), they’ve seemed to settle into comfortable suburban domesticity (and, interestingly, all of them are straight — or, if any aren’t, Rose and Leonard adopt a don’t-ask, don’t-tell attitude towards them) even though most of the males seem more or less effeminate on screen. The most “normal” couple in the bunch are Ed and Deanna Templeton, who’ve been married 14 years, live in the perfect Leave It to Beaver suburban house and say that the Christian Right should regard them as the perfect family since they’ve been totally faithful to each other over a long period of time — and then we get to see the photos they’ve taken of each other in the nude, including one which for the brief glimpse of it we see appears to be a shot of her giving him a blow job with an “X” painted over it as either a commentary or a spoof of censorship. (Ed explains that the reason they’ve taken these pictures of each other is they want to be reminded, when they’re old, of what they looked like when they were young and the sexual parts of their relationship were still fresh.)

Margaret Kilgallen may not have been the most technically accomplished of these artists but she was (I think) the most imaginative, and her death is a real tragedy — she got cancer around the same time she got pregnant by her partner, Barry McGee, and she was told by her doctors that if she had an abortion they could probably keep her alive longer but if she insisted on giving birth she almost certainly would die. She chose to have her baby — a daughter — and, true to prediction, died two months after the baby was born. (As often in these kinds of stories, I found myself especially feeling for Barry and the double whammy he faced of having lost his partner and having to raise their daughter as a single father.) Beautiful Losers is a fascinating movie, especially in its examination of the changing relationship between art and commerce and how it’s no longer possible, and maybe even no longer desirable, for artists to maintain the aloof, above-the-marketplace pose of the Romantic figures of the 19th and 20th centuries.

It’s also an interesting premonition of the total democratization of art in the Internet era — though the Net was in its infancy when the Alleged scene was at its height, many of them anticipated the D.I.Y. ethos of the Net era and a number of them used cheap video cameras and editing software to make their own films, and not only make them but copyright them and get them shown. (This movie’s credits have the longest list of acknowledgments of use of excerpts from previously copyrighted films I can recall ever seeing.) One of the most interesting people profiled (and about the queeniest!) is Harmony Korine (that’s a man, by the way — and almost certainly not the name he was born with), whose movies — judging from the excerpts included here — seem like they’d be a lot of fun to watch.