Beautiful Losers, which is showing as part of this year’s London Film Festival, is a documentary telling the story of a group of artists, designers and filmmakers who worked, exhibited and hung out at the Alleged Gallery in New York in the 1990s. Around 200 people showed at the gallery over the ten years it was open (1992–2002), but only a brief selection appear in the film: gallery founder Aaron Rose and artists Barry McGee, Harmony Korine, Mike Mills, Stephen Powers, Thomas Campbell, Shepard Fairey, Jo Jackson, Geoff McFetridge, Margaret Kilgallen, Ed Templeton and Chris Johanson. All have proved influential, and despite Mike Mills’ assertion in the film that the group was “awesomely dumb”, have gone on to be hugely prolific, creating work that has moved back and forth across the boundaries of art, graphic design, film and advertising.
Alleged founder Aaron Rose also directed the movie and curated the retrospective exhibition of the same name, which toured internationally from 2004–05. The events in the film may have happened relatively recently, but when watching it’s easy to begin hankering for what feels oddly like a more innocent era. New York was certainly a different place when the gallery was set up. “In 1989, the city looked like a bomb had hit it,” says Rose in the film, while Stephen Powers remarks of his arrival in Manhattan that “the first thing I remember seeing was a cop car burnt out”. In the shinier, if admittedly far safer, version of New York that exists today, it’s difficult to remember the Lower East Side pre its recent gentrification, or how much creativity was taking place there, with the low rents in the neighbourhood attracting everyone from artists and designers to writers and musicians.
Many of the artists in Beautiful Losers had grown up feeling dislocated in suburbs across America, and their influences came far more from graffiti art, skateboarding, hip hop and punk than anything the established art world of the time was offering. Similarly, as its name suggests, Alleged was initially a makeshift enterprise, with Rose describing the gallery as more of a crash pad at first. “I didn’t even know how an art gallery ran,” he says in the film. “I didn’t even really know that it sold art.” What the looseness offered, though, was room for everyone to experiment, and to create the kind of work that they couldn’t find anywhere else. This diy aesthetic linked directly to skateboarding – “It’s where all of this came from,” says Thomas Campbell. “Skateboarding is a rigorous movement, you have to try and try and try, and then finally you get something” – but also to street art and murals.
“Some people were making movies, some were drawing, some were painting … people were in bands and stuff,” says Harmony Korine, when speaking in the documentary of the early days at the gallery. “I guess you saw a correlation to what everyone was doing. There was a kind of relationship to it, and to my surprise, there was perhaps some kind of importance to that moment in time…. The reason I made movies is because no one else was showing me the types of things I wanted to see. No one was creating the images that I wanted to see projected. It’s more like if you want to see something, you make it. First and foremost for your friends I guess.”
Rose is still trying to get to grips with the cultural significance of the gallery. “I’m still not even that convinced today that it was all so important,” he says by email to cr. “It was definitely a scene, that much was clear because you saw or talked with the same people day in and day out and you could feel a sort of mutual growing movement within our community, but in terms of the importance I’m still on the fence. That’s for the art historians to decide. We didn’t make this movie to say that this scene was important. Importance is relative. Our motivation was to inspire people with a great story of how we helped each other up when the world didn’t care.”
The question of being inside or outside the art establishment is a theme that runs throughout the Beautiful Losers story, and continues even now, when works by the artists have shown in museums internationally. “I think there’s an attitude difference between what’s done inside and what’s done outside,” says Margaret Kilgallen in an old interview featured in the film (Kilgallen died in 2001). “As an artist you want to be able to sell your work and live off your work, and that world that involves art buying and selling is a very closed world and sometimes you forget about the other world around you. Any day in the Mission in San Francisco you can see a hand-painted sign that’s kind of funky. And maybe the person would prefer if they had money to have a neon sign. But I don’t prefer that…. Doing community art keeps you in touch with where you’re from.”
It’s not just the contemporary art world that the artists now move in either. Some – most prominently Harmony Korine and Mike Mills– have become famous as filmmakers while others – Mills again and Geoff McFetridge – are also known for their work in advertising. There is a sense that these artists – perhaps because of their punk, do-it-yourself beginnings – are less hampered by the prescribed boundaries of what you are ‘allowed’ to do as an artist, even if they are fully aware that these divisions exist.
Some of the artists were drawn towards graphic design and advertising by the larger audiences offered by these fields. “There’s no difference between commercial art and fine art in terms of aesthetics, it’s just intent,” explains Shepard Fairey in Beautiful Losers. “You can make something seem much bigger than it really is. When people see it out on stickers and they’re wondering what it really is … then they ask someone else and it gains power from perceived power … I’m so into propaganda art and Pop Art because that art is designed to stop you in your tracks and get your attention. Then once it’s got its hold on you, it delivers some sort of message. Advertising is the same way.”
“I got a lot of emotional fuel out of being successful in that world,” continues Mike Mills about advertising. “Knowing my stuff was going out on that big of a level, internationally, everywhere. It made me feel valuable. This is all just interpersonal, family shit – me yelling back at my parents that I’m okay. Once you realise that, it’s a little disenchanting to say the least! I realised that it was getting back at all the tanned, blonde motherfuckers who wouldn’t talk to me.”
Rose stresses now that the move by some of the artists towards advertising was not a planned one, however. “I never thought about advertising,” he tells cr. “For the most part I hate advertising. Ninety percent of it is crap. The only reason some of the artists got into it is because the opportunities presented themselves, and usually they were situations where the companies were coming after an artist or a designer to do exactly what they were doing anyway. Plus, we were unique in the fact that we had, and ironically still do have, the eyes and ears of millions and millions of kids. Not many contemporary artists can boast that kind of young audience. The contemporary art world for the most part is geared towards older people. So I don’t know how interested the advertising world would be in regular contemporary art. That stuff’s not usually very punk or sexy. In terms of was it part of a plan? Never. Opportunities came up. Some artists said yes, some said no. We were never, like, pitching stuff.”
The way that the Beautiful Losers crowd used the opportunities presented to them has certainly influenced artists who have followed and could also be said to have changed the art world itself. Street art and graffiti art has certainly rarely seemed as popular, or as lucrative, a medium as now, and while obviously the crossover began earlier than Alleged with artists such as Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, it seems certain that the gallery contributed to this acceptance by the establishment. It is intriguing to wonder if the success of an artist like Banksy could have existed without Alleged, but Rose isn’t sure that the links are that clear cut. “I don’t know how much a scene like Alleged had to do with opening the doors for someone like Banksy,” he says on email. “I mean, maybe some of the artists helped to bring the vernacular of the street into the dialogue, which maybe opened some minds? Who knows. The scene we explore in the movie is very different from the Banksy phenomenon. We worked in relative obscurity for almost a decade before breaking into the mainstream. That was good for us because there is a real solid foundation there for long careers. I sometimes worry about artists like Banksy. He seems just like a big pop … like the Spice Girls or something. Sometimes I wonder if anyone will remember his name in ten years. I hope that’s not the case.”
While Beautiful Losers is a story about creative pioneering, alongside a good old-fashioned love of making things, it is also as much about collaboration and community. The film offers an unusually intimate portrait of a group of artists, perhaps because it was shot by Rose himself, and slowly, over a period of several years. It deals with the tragically early death of Margaret Kilgallen, and the effect that this had on the close-knit group, as well as the traumatic closure of the gallery (after many of the artists had been tempted elsewhere after tasting success), without at any point falling into mawkishness.
Importantly, despite the fact that putting something on film runs the risk of making it appear sealed into the past, there is a sense that the influence of the Beautiful Losers generation (who are themselves only in their mid- to late-thirties) is only just beginning. “It’s not a phase, it’s not a fad,” says Stephen Powers in the film. “For it to grow up and be huge it’s going to need many, many, many more people to feed the organism and make it grow.”
Beautiful Losers will show at this year’s London Film Festival on October 18 at BFI Southbank, and October 21 at the ICA. For more info, visit bfi.org.uk/lff