Aaron Rose Discusses Beautiful Losers

Art geeks will recall the Beautiful Losers exhibition that toured American museums from 2004 to 2006 (it featured Colorado native Evan Hecox) and the subsequent book of the same name that profiled the emerging aesthetic category now known as Urban Contemporary. Well, the man behind both of those projects, Aaron Rose, has completed a documentary to showcase how art-world outsiders like Barry McGee, Shepard Fairey, Margaret Kilgallen, Chris Johanson, Spike Jonze and Ed Templeton have changed mainstream design, photography and art.

The local indie-movie lovers over at The Filmlot have arranged a screening of Beautiful Losers at 7 p.m. on May 22 at the Mayan Theater; Rose will be on hand afterward for a question-and-answer session. For a chance to win free passes to the screening, try your hand at the Beautiful Losers quiz. And don't miss the after-party at the Continental Club, 475 Santa Fe Drive.

Below is an extended interview with Rose, in which he discusses skateboarding, selling out and the politics of growing up. – Jared Jacang Maher

Westword: How did you first get interested in this subject?

Aaron Rose: In 1992, I opened a very small do-it-yourself art gallery in New York City that was run pretty much by me and all of my friends when we were like nineteen, 21-years-old. And I met all of these young artists who didn’t really have careers or money or anything like that and we together built this scene around us which then went on to gain a degree of critical acclaim and eventually grew out of our little scene and became – you know the world owns it now. As this kind of happened and I was watching it happen I thought you know this is more than just an art thing, this is actually a great story about people helping people. And that’s when we got the ideas about making it into a movie and shooting a documentary came about. I’m a huge fan of the art, of course, but it was more just such a beautiful story that it actually makes sense to get it on film.

WW: So the traveling show Beautiful Losers introduced the nation to it, the book further canonized it, but with the documentary you’re talking about the story. What is the narrative beyond just a bunch of random people doing a new style of art?

AR: It’s funny because we don’t talk about the art very much in the film. The art is all over the film. You see it, you get to know it, you learn to look at it. But the story is really about people helping people and overcoming the system, basically. You know we’re talking about artist that meet, we’re all into countercultural things. We’re skateboarders and graffiti writers, and into punk rock and all that kind of stuff. And we were the bad kids, you know. And still are to a certain degree, although we’re older now. [Laughs] And so it’s a story about how the bad kids got together and made something and made a life for themselves without following the rules and that’s really what the book and the exhibition and the film are all really about.

WW: Now the term floating around for this type of art is Urban Contemporary. When you encounter people that know nothing about this, or coming from a mainstream art background, how do you explain it.

AR:I feel that those are very young labels. Urban Contemporary, you’re talking about a very youthful movement. For me I’ve seen way beyond the sub-cultural ties. Years and years ago, the ties to things like skating and surfing and graffiti, it left the art.

WW: You mean it transcended those activities?

AR: Yeah, yeah. It was something that happened in our twenties. But unfortunately it was tagged at that time. Because putting skateboarders and art together looked good on a headline. And I’m not dissing that, that’s cool. But the work is really accepted now into – especially the work of these artists as well it’s really been accepted into the canons of art history now. And I think the first generation was lucky because they got in before those terms were around. Whereas, you know, Chris Johanson and Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen, their works now trade at Christies, right next to Andy Warhol and Damian Hurst and all the other big artists. And they’re not set off in a group of urban art. It’s just become part of the soup of contemporary artists working. The next generation coming up has not gotten to that point yet. There’s quite a bit of posturing and, like, ‘This is the urban thing,’ and this and that. And actually Ed Templeton says in the film: “They call the show Beautiful Losers and now everyone comes up to me and says, ‘Oh you’re a Beautiful Loser.’” And he says, “You can’t pigeon-hole me to be anything. I’m not just a painter. I’m not just a photographer. I’m just an artist.”

WW: Do you get the sense at least from some of the artists individually that there is some tension between the movement’s growing mainstream acceptance and their do-it-yourself, outsider roots?

AR: Yeah. That’s the crux of our film. It’s the big selling-out question. How do you grow up and have a family and make a living and be a quote-unquote professional, when you never really wanted that in the first place. But now that it’s there, how do you do that and still stay true to the motivations that originally started you doing what you love?

WW: Do you think that those questions are somehow unique to this group of artists, or are they questions that artists have faced historically?

AR: It’s amplified with these artists because they come from a countercultural background where their identities were sort of built on being “anti.” But what I’ve learned from the audiences that have watched the film, that this is a question that everybody faces. It’s like a growing up question. It’s a getting serious question. So it works well in a story because these artists were branded as rebels, as kids. But people have seemed to relate to it who are totally not creative people, just because everybody has to face those issues at some point in their life, whether you’re writer or a lawyer.

WW: And what about Shepard Fairey. His whole style with the Andre the Giant posters was in response to consumerism, that it was the anti-advertising, that he didn’t get paid for it. And now it’s on skateboard decks and Sprite bottles. Have you seen any backlash from the newest generation of young artists?

AR: There is, there always is. It’s more person-to-person. Any time you gain a little notoriety there’s always going to be someone who hates you. There’s a lot of judgment for sure. What we deal with in the film is that most of these artists got their start doing things like T-shirts and stickers and skateboards. Before I opened my gallery, that’s how I knew about a lot of these people was through skateboarding and just loving the bottoms of these skateboards because the art is usually, 99 percent of the time, done by a kid. So they were already making stuff before they started having art shows, because it was the only way to get their art out. Concert posters, show fliers, skateboards. So when companies started coming around and offering money it wasn’t that much of a stretch, maybe less so than a contemporary artist who had never dealt in that way. Because it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, well I’ve already make like fifty skateboard graphics.’ So the issue of commercial work never came up, it was more like the brands attached to them. Some of the artist in the film do it, some of the don’t. Chris Johanson, refuses to do any corporate work at all. And the only advertising work he’ll do is for local businesses around where he lives. He’ll do the bakery’s ad or a T-shirt for the video store. So we talk about those people too. But it’s so big now. At one point there were only twenty people in the world that did it, now it’s thousands and thousands.

WW: And as for the next generation?

AR: They’re coming. I’m actually eager because there will be a backlash, there always is. That’s how art is. Something gets big and a whole new group of kids comes in and says, “Screw them!” I like that.

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Jared Jacang Maher