At the onset of the nineties (or in millennial terms, the veritable dawn of the dead), a kid named Aaron Rose opened up an art space on the still seedy Lower East Side of New York City with the dubious name Alleged Gallery. Not that anyone in the art world noticed it at all, but at this relative low point of cultural production, here was a mode of expression quite unlike anything else you could find on a gallery wall at the time. Perhaps to the outside observer—and that would probably be anyone on the inside, as this was so pathologically outsider—the art might resemble the kind of stuff youngsters do, not even the art school variety, but something far more adolescent. The hidden context, however, was a subcultural element of connectivity that would in fact soon lose its marginal status and become one of the dominant signifiers of youth culture. The art, done in a myriad of mediums too varied to inventory, was predominantly by and about skateboarders. Perhaps even more disconcerting to the more polite connoisseur was that the audience itself comprised primarily skateboarders as well. A dealer probably well out of the necessary collectors’ loop, a bit of a wise ass and perchance more dedicated to a convivial lifestyle than the mundane labors of the marketplace, Rose had a spectacular ability to debut some of the most important artists of his generation that was matched by his capacity for bad business. This resulted in the ascension of such artists as Chris Johanson, Barry McGee, Thomas Campbell, Ed Templeton, Harmony Korine, Mark Gonzalez, Spike Jonze, Mike Mills, Phil Frost, Margaret Kilgallen, and Shepard Fairey to significant careers, and a history of bankruptcy and failure for the gallery itself that finally drove Rose from the dealer’s table.
Now that collectors are kicking themselves for not grabbing this work before its pricetags accrued so many zeros, Aaron Rose—partnered with the savvy cultural entrepreneur and ex-honcho of Strength Magazine Christian Strike—has achieved historical validation and personal vindication as the curator of one of the most hotly anticipated traveling museum shows of contemporary art out there. “Beautiful Losers,” which recently premiered at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center and will subsequently embark on a global-conquest museum tour, is quite tellingly about a whole lot more than merely skateboarding art. In some ways this is surely a quotient of this particular generation’s coming of age—how one’s identity as an artist ultimately takes precedence over their identification with skateboarding, and the self-knowledge that the work must transcend the phenomenology of recreational lifestyle. This contextual shift—at once a distancing but also an embrace, considering that many in this show had wisely come to bristle at the easy label of “skate art” as a kind of pejorative stigma with its own built-in obsolescence—is more symptomatic of how this group has collectively struggled to define its own identity.
Many of the artists in “Beautiful Losers” who began making their art and the scene in places like New York City and San Francisco in the early nineties often remarked of experiencing a certain vague feeling, like entering into a vacuum. The explanation that those of us old enough at that time to understand could offer was indeed a sad one. There was a horrible gap in the historical continuity of the underground at that time: so many had died of AIDS and drugs, and even more of the marginal freaks that once populated these urban refuges had simply been priced out of them by the escalating rents and social homogenization resulting from gentrification. One of the great gifts of “Beautiful Losers,” both as a compelling exhibition and an art book forthcoming from DAP, is that this group—among the final adventurers to settle America’s bohemian enclaves with the proverbial dollar and a dream—has at last found their place in the continuum. There is a real curatorial wonder that resists the simple trappings of supplying another new flavor to satisfy the art world’s incessant hunger for novelty, and rather works to connect with a deeper lineage. Yes, the kids will flock to see the current hipsters in the spotlight, but there is a depth to the staging at work here, where what is still relatively new can be rooted in a lineage that spans Basquiat, Stecyk, Crumb, Pettibon, Futura, and more transitional figures like Larry Clark and Ari Marcoulos. And as great as it is to finally see this genre as art in the purest sense of the term, it is vital that we never forget exactly how relevant remain its ties to skateboarding. At a time of cultural conservatism, when being different and expressing oneself constituted a kind of self-martyring taboo, skate culture taught kids the DIY ethos, and the fluidity by which anything (a tee shirt, a fanzine, a home video, an illegal act of graffiti vandalism or trespass, a doodle, a painting, a picture of your friends, or even a style of skating) can be both a totally personal mode of communication and a coded language of community. This it would seem is the most valuable lesson that the arts can still learn from these Beautiful Losers.