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Thrashers and taggers: "Beautiful Losers," a traveling exhibition that includes established, emerging and accidental artists, examines an esthetic sensibility inspired by various subcultures, from skateboarding to hip-hop

Mean-looking skulls, Osama bin Laden and a ranged, tattooed bikini girl decorate some of the skateboard decks included as ephemera in "Beautiful Losers," exemplifying the happily nasty esthetic of this traveling exhibition of art inspired by punk rock, hip-hop, skateboarding and graffiti. The show's co-curators, Aaron Rose and Christian Strike--former proprietors of counterculture-leaning enterprises Alleged Gallery and Strength magazine, respectively--don't play up the outsider status of the 35 raffish artists in their show, since they selected a crew already pedigreed in the mainstream art world. If not major museum exhibitions, each person included has at least a major gallery exhibition or monograph to his or her name. And of this, something interesting can be said: even five years ago it wouldn't have been possible to assemble such a large, well-regarded group of bona-fide misfits. Their sprawling theme park of paintings, photographs, sculptures, installations and videos amounts to a surprisingly ambitious exhibition. More than anything, it evidences a disparate but likeminded bunch of people who generally attack the soullessness of retail culture, middle-class America and all pretense, and who respond directly to the world around them rather than to theoretical or self-referential art-related concerns. And the show feels alive, fully formed and necessary. Refreshing, even. Except that a large scale show like this can't help but speak to the death-by-mainstreaming of a former underground.

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A small portion of the exhibition focuses on "Roots and influences." Here, 1980 counts as a long time ago, and we get good-looking examples of' groundbreaking, gallery-ready graffiti on canvas or paper from Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Futura--perfect for collectors in the once-booming market wanting to take a piece of the streets home with them. In the main section of the show, a few younger graffiti practitioners fixate instead on the spirit of their illegal "public art" endeavors, inflicting their craft on the white cube via installation. In this vein, Josh Lazcano and Barry McGee teamed up to create motorized, pimple-faced mannequins resembling street re'chins in baggy jeans and hoodies lurking around the museum in unlikely places, seemingly caught in the act of tagging "Amaze" on the walls. Something inevitably gets sacrificed in attempting to re-create an anarchic pastime in the context of a gallery. In this case, though, it was neither ingenuity nor humor.

By stenciling a mock advertisement--the visage of Andre the Giant along with the word OBEY--in public, Shepard Fairey regularly risks fines and jail time in hopes of restoring people's overall sense of wonder in the world. Here, he contributes photographic documentation of his exploits along with wall text explaining his "phenomenological" project: he wants to turn city streets, the domain of advertising, into a playing field for subversive, confusing, Dadalike nonsense. And by taking advantage of regular marketplace means of promotion (stickers, posters, buttons, a clothing line and a Web site, obeygiant.com), Fairey's giant-painting prank has mushroomed into what now constitutes an industry--an influential, oft-copied anti-brand without a product. Anyone who disseminates the giant icon participates in a grassroots campaign to resist the incessant barrage of consumer crap and the dominance of advertising on the public landscape. And as luck would have it, Fairey is only one of many "Losers" blessed with big-time, real-world success. Several individuals included in the show have, by doing things their own way, ironically reinvigorated industries such as film (Larry Clark, Cheryl Dunn, Spike Jonze, Harmony Korine, Mike Mills), music (Pushead, Ari Marcopoulos) and even advertising itself (Geoff McFetridge, Terry Richardson).

In addition to the counterculture having morphed into the new mainstream, another of the exhibition's paradoxical draws is that for iconoclastic "destroyers" of communal property, many of the artists demonstrate rather well-tuned esthetic sensibilities. One such creature, graffiti legend Stephen Powers, shows a story-high, multipanel aluminum wall piece painted with hard-edge, Constructivist-propaganda-style graphics for The Superfeen at the Learning Center (2004), a grand cartoon monument to the no-future attitude of a bum who has ostensibly tuned in and dropped out. The largest panel illustrates a beer-bellied guy sleeping on the street, wearing a cape and mask; dreams of his own superheroic deeds are illustrated on other panels hovering over his head. On four different sides of a motorized, rotating cube housed in a small hut nearby (the learning center of the title), well-designed instructional text reads: "strive confidently--work diligently--focus intently--fail completely."

Another esthete, Phil Frost, started his art career by furtively creating installations around New York City in the middle of the night. His Pollockesque THUNDERWHISPER 43 (2003-04) is a colorful, intricately worked, almost all-abstract wall installation in which images of fangs, eyeballs and sometimes even heads can be discerned. Comprising 20 panels of varying sizes, it measures 8 feet high by more than 19 feet long, and incorporates mediums ranging from gouache and ink to correction fluid, glass, sand and leaves. With its zany labor-intensive quality, the piece is at once elegant and scrappy; Frost says his process involves a spiritual "inner quickening," perhaps leading us to wonder about the psychological proximity of insanity and genius, and what makes certain people need to make art. Ryan McGinness, on the other hand, produces extremely pretty, polished work that doesn't reveal its conceptual program right away. In order to express his disbelief in originally, he replicates, repeats and recontextualizes a range of sleekly designed symbols in a variety of mediums including videos, T-shirts and skateboards--as well as artworks. As far as he's concerned, really, why differentiate between art and merchandise? For this show, McGinness painted murals on which he also hung paintings, creating a seamless environment for colorful images that evoke something along the lines of baroque mansions surrounded by elegantly twisting flora and fauna. By comparison, neighboring works that don't take their surroundings into consideration come to look half-baked.


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