Between Beautiful & Branding

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New York's alleged gallery in the 1990s
New York's alleged gallery in the 1990s
In the new documentary Beautiful Losers, designer and artist Geoff McFetridge looks into the camera and says, "This is the game. Are you going to decide you're playing the game or not playing the game?"

Given you're flipping through the pages of this magazine, chances are your days are spent playing the game he's talking about—that of bridging the divide between art and commerce. That, or you might just make funny pictures to sell stuff. Either way, the defining line between artistic endeavor and commercialism is a common contemporary debate, mulled over by everyone from that kid in a Minor Threat t-shirt to the filmmaker directing his first sugary soda spot. It's also a key issue addressed in the documentary, directed by Aaron Rose and Joshua Leonard and produced by Sidetrack Films.

The film gets its name from a traveling art exhibition that began in 2004 and brought together a loose-knit group of contemporary artists influenced by skateboarding, punk, graffiti, hip hop and an overall DIY approach. The film focuses on a core group — Harmony Korine, Mike Mills, Stephen Powers, Thomas Campbell, Margaret Kilgallen, Shepard Fairey, Jo Jackson, Ed Templeton, Geoff McFetridge, Chris Johanson and Barry McGee — representing a cross section of the many personalities and styles within this particular movement. Chronicling the artists' journey from loose collection of art world nobodies to making feature films and showing in major galleries around the world, the film is very much a coming-of-age story, of the individual artists, their careers and the art, itself.

It's no coincidence that the success of these artists and their expanded scope of influence—think Mills and Korine's
Barry McGee artwork
Barry McGee artwork
commercial directing, Templeton's ownership of Toy Machine Skateboards, the growth of Shepard Fairey's Obey brand or Powers and McGee's recent team-up with cycling brand Cinelli—parallels that of the general appetite for all things street art in pop culture right now. For many of the profiled artists, a big part of their career arc has occurred with the help of advertising and brand work. But as McFetridge also points out in the film, it's a bizarre experience for an artist whose primary contact with commercialism is for a niche audience to then get a call from Pepsi. (Which he did.) Not just from a workload or paycheck standpoint, but also in terms of the age old — well, at least since the 1960s — question: Are you selling out?

Rose, who does a lot of curating and consulting work for brands and is repped for commercial directing by Blacklake Productions, sees the dilemma as a personal decision for each artist to tailor for themselves. "Everybody knows in their heart when it starts to feel weird," he says. "For me, I listen to (the client's) goals and initiatives but then they just have to let me go do it. I'll get their message or whatever in there but I'll do it my way. If not, I'm not doing the job. I don't care how much money it is, it's not worth it."

He points to doc subject Chris Johanson as an example of one end of the spectrum. "Chris Johanson won't work with corporations at all, only with small companies. He does free ads for local businesses around Portland (Oregon) like a sandwich shop or the bookstore. But when it comes to anything corporate it's a straight no, no matter how much money it is. So it just depends from person to person, based on their own sense of what they feel is right."

Fellow Beautiful Losers subject, director and artist Mike Mills, echoes Rose's sentiment about it being a personal issue. "I don't think there's some over-arching manifesto line," he says. "We live in a hyper-consumerist society where even if you're having a show at MoMA, it's sponsored by some corporation. So to actually really live clean of corporate money is a very difficult thing to do and the art world isn't a place that's clean of it. So once you're past that easy truism that art is innocent, then you're in a very messy world."

Mills balances his desire to surprise an unsuspecting public that exists outside the rarified world of art, with an awareness of his own principles concerning art and the idea of responsible consumerism. "Doing commercials can leave a very bitter taste in your mouth in that you're helping that consumer society that is such a big part of the problem," he says. "And if you're doing really interesting, creative commercials, it's almost worse in a way because you're making that part of society look better. So I don't really have a good, clean answer for that and my life path hasn't been very Protestant about it. I'm not Fugazi, y'know? But there are many different ways you fight the beast."

McFetridge, who recently opened an exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park, says he's continually faced with having to assert his commercial boundaries but acknowledges that his generation is more comfortable with having its art mingle with pop culture. "I've always tried to make work that is appealing and that expresses feeling in different ways and is communicative," he says. "As much as it can be really graphic, which can be appealing and saleable, part of it is to actually sell the stuff and be involved in the larger, non-fine art part of culture that is more about mass producing things and having things everywhere and seeing them around."

And now for the requisite Andy Warhol quote: "Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist." Chris Johanson may have other goals and maybe that's where the answer lies. One thing Beautiful Losers illustrates so well is an artist's ability to navigate commercial waters while continuing to grow as an artist and (ideally) keeping one's integrity firmly intact. Answers to the dreaded sell out question vary as much from artist to artist as styles of creative expression. They're not found in a bold statement of rule or written manifesto, but in the artists' own tolerance for commercial enterprise.

Beautiful Losers will have a limited theatrical release this summer, hitting New York's IFC Film Center on August 8, the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles on August 29, followed by runs in San Francisco, Chicago and Portland, Oregon in September.

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