Beautiful Losers Hit the Big Screen

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In March 2004, the "Beautiful Losers" exhibition debuted at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center and brought together a stunning collection of contemporary and "street" artists whose work is influenced by skateboarding, punk, graffiti, hip hop and an overall DIY approach. After a successful run in Cincinnati, the show traveled to San Francisco, Orange County, Baltimore, then on to Europe, Asia and Australia by last year. There is also the accompanying book and now, the Beautiful Losers documentary.

The film doesn't feature every artist from the gallery show, instead choosing to focus 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 personalities and styles in this particular art movement. While many documentaries tend to discuss subjects well past the studied time frame, director Aaron Rose, also the co-curator of the original art exhibit, wanted to examine this movement while it was still happening. The approach gives the film a welcome immediacy and avoids much of the back-in-the-day pitfalls that can plague any story being told through the often rose-colored lens of hindsight. That's not to say there isn't a healthy dose of nostalgia for the days these artists gathered in New York's Alleged Gallery on the Lower East Side as a group of youthful unknowns, but a good portion of the film also looks at their more recent transition from art world nobodies to working with high profile brands and having work displayed in major galleries and museums around the world. In that way, it's very much a coming-of-age story, of both the individual artists, their careers and style of art, itself.

We spoke to Rose after the film's AIGA screening in New York.

Did this film start as a companion piece to the gallery exhibit?
No, actually we started shooting before the exhibit. We started in 2002 and called it "Untitled Street Art Project" because we didn't have a name for it. The exhibition came about in 2003/2004, so then it made sense to group it all together. We originally started because we recognized that it was a great story. It's a very different story than most artists in the art world have. That said, I think artists or any creative person can relate to it in terms of the creative process, but the fact this is about a group of street artists that came together and ended up in places like the Whitney and the MoMA was an interesting rags-to-riches story. I think we were lucky, with everyone, in terms of how frank and honest they were. Like Mike Mills talking about the only reason he directed commercials was to yell back at his parents that he was OK. He's a top notch commercials and film director and for him to admit that was great.
Another big motivation to start this was when Margaret (Kilgallen) passed away (in 2001). That reminded many of us that this life doesn't go on forever. It took me two or three years to get over that. After she died, (the group) didn't talk to each other for over a year. It was only as we began working on the exhibition that people started hanging out again. It was just too painful.

There were many more artists in the original gallery show. How did you arrive at these specific artists to profile in the film?
We did full-length interviews with 80 or 90 people. And only 12 or 13 are in the film. In our earliest cuts we tried to get everyone in but it was a disaster. We had to use so much voiceover and it just came out as such a standard documentary and that wasn't what we wanted to do. We actually cut an entire film and ended up throwing it out. Which was hard because we had worked on it for six to eight months.
From there we went into these character sessions for all the artists – where did they grow up? What was their family life like? What kind of art do they do? We wrote all their stories out in these character graphs and looked at those to determine which artists we could use that could act as an archetype and represent a larger group. So we chose the artists in the film by determining who could represent a lot of people. Like ESPO (Stephen Powers) represents graffiti and New York, while Barry and Margaret represent the San Francisco Mission kind of thing. That said, we have so much footage so the DVD will have so many extras.

As a historical document, what do you hope the film says to people 10, 20, 30 years from now?
I'd be lying if I said I didn't want this work to be accepted into art history. I'm not cool enough to say, I don't care about that. I love these people and believe their work is valid and should be accepted. But in general, I hope (years from now) people take the same sort of inspiration or feeling from the film as hopefully people now will. I think it can be used as a self-help tool – if you have a bad day at work, watch this movie and get inspired.

Aaron Rose
Aaron Rose Credit: Dan Monick
This generation of artists are often closely tied or working with brands. At what point does the relationship between brands/products and art not work? Where does the sell out line fall?
I think it differs from artist to artist. Everybody knows in their heart when it starts to feel weird. I always say that the artist reserves the right to say no. If you don't like the way something is going, say no. It just depends on what people are comfortable with. For me, personally, because I do a lot of work with corporate America, I listen to their goals and initiatives but then they just have to let me go do it. I have to do it the way I 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. It makes me look like a fool, it takes years off my life – I don't care about money that much for that.
Chris Johanson, for example, won't work with corporations at all. He works 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.

We see many of these artists' work on consumer goods – skateboards, bikes, toys, t-shirts – What is it about them and their audience that has their art taking on so many forms?
The generational quotient, or whatever it's called, has something to do with it. A whole generation has grown up now with skateboarding and graffiti so it's no longer something in the corner. So they know and get these references very easily. A lot of these artists, not to say they're not intellectuals, but they don't talk down to their audience. It's very human work. Anyone can get it, you don't need to read an essay to understand what it means. I think that's a big reason why it appeals to such a wide audience and why when it's on a product it makes more sense. There's certainly a lot of thought and care that goes into each piece but it still speaks to the common man, which is something a lot of art stopped doing a long time ago.

That said, I can look at a Rembrandt and still have an emotional connection to the work, even if the only thing I know about him is he's Dutch. Since it's when something is appreciated that the scholarship starts, when do you see it happening to this movement?
I know, it's already there. I get calls about thesis papers all the time. I feel bad for the artists sometimes because (this type of analysis) picks apart their corpse. They're not even dead. Art historians tend to peel the skin off the bone to see what's there and write it all down and I'm not sure that means you're getting any deeper into that piece of art. So it is weird to me. I'm happy it's being discussed in the schools, as are all the artists I'm sure, that students are talking and writing about them. As an artist you want to communicate, that's the reason you do it. You want an audience to see it and react to it, but there is that creepy side to it also.
In the end, more exposure is more communication and that's a good thing. The bad aspect is that people may pick it apart, but that's just life.

You talk a lot about youth in the film and keeping one's childlike idealism. Since, as you say, a whole generation has grown up now with graffiti and skateboarding, what do you see as the next rebellious art movement?
I don't know but I look forward to it. I stay friends with 19 and 20 year olds to stay in touch with what they're into. It's exciting. It'll probably be a backlash against all this. They'll probably hate graffiti and hate skateboarding and start something new. Skateboarding is a good example of something that's constantly evolving. I love that about it. Just when you think it's one thing, there's a whole new group of 15-year-olds somewhere changing it. It's fast. Sort of like fashion. You've got one little group that starts doing things one way or dressing a certain way and then there's a magazine article and then other people start doing it and then while that's happening the cycle is starting all over again with another group somewhere else.
There's already another generation of artists coming up who were inspired by (the film's) artists and they're coming up in the ranks. They're great artists and I'm sure a few of them will have successful careers but it's not new any more. It's just following the same path set by those that came before. But something new will come along. It always does.

Beautiful Losers will open in theaters in select cities this summer. For more information, visit the film's official website.
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