When I was a freshman at Yale in 1970 I took biology from a tall, formidable African-American professor named Richard Goldsby. On the first day of class, Dr. Goldsby showed us a year’s worth of autopsy results from the Boston morgue. "Ninety percent of these people had internal physical deformities which never showed up on medical records during their lives," Dr. Goldsby opined, "We each regard ourselves as normal, we come from our own frame of reference and assume it is universal. There is no such thing as normal."
I thought of this while watching Aaron Rose’s film Beautiful Losers, the tale of his 1990s Alleged Gallery on Ludlow Street and the artists, such as Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Jo Jacksin, Mike Mills and Chris Johanssen, who emerged from it. Let me confess that there’s a scene in this film in which Margaret Kilgallen and Barry McGee sit at a kitchen table, each reading a copy of Most Art Sucks, a scene which left me honored, humbled, and feeling kinda stupid. I had kept the Alleged phenomenon at arm’s length, because I was already too old and grumpy and because I remembered the first skateboard scene in 1964: I hated it then and I hate it now.
So Beautiful Losers is a belated education for me. The film has a spiritual arc, about a bunch of artists establishing their own normality. The film begins with uberdweeb Harmony Korine creepily telling a little kid in a Nashville playground about how some hoodlums decapitated one of his friends with a switchblade and then gradually arcs heavenwards to Margaret Kilgallen giving birth to her beautiful daughter before dying of cancer.
Oldsters will be enlightened by the recurring universality of the hipster paradigm. After all, Beautiful Losers was Leonard Cohen’s celebrated underground novel of the 1960s, and shots of Margaret Kilgallen elegantly tagging boxcars in a train yard bring to mind Jack Kerouac leaping off a boxcar to grab bread and wine to share with a hobo in The Dharma Bums.
What is especially peculiar about Beautiful Losers, and heartening, is how the artists become smarter and more philosophically aware as they get commercial success, whether it is being worshipped by the city of Tokyo or designing logos for Pepsi One, a diet drink. Artist Thomas Campbell shows film of his boyhood beach home in California turning into suburbia: these ‘90s artists couldn’t hop a train or hitchhike like Kerouac, because conformist America forced them inward. The flatness of the images in this film, which always turned me off esthetically, were the necessary product of a fenced-in vision.
SoHo art dealer Jeffrey Deitch makes his appearance in Beautiful Losers as a megalith co-opting the scene and helping to put Alleged Gallery out of business. He seems extraneous and irrelevant, as the artists celebrate their friendships, as they now push 40. Margaret Kilgallen is acknowledged not only as the most talented of the group, but as the avatar of their creative hearts.
The film is summed up by a commercial Mike Mills did for Volkswagen, in which he hurls a sneaker into a tree, and a car falls down. New art comes from the dispossessed in wave after wave, and what’s left on the beach are beautiful shells.
Beautiful Losers is currently being screened in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. For details, see www.beautifullosers.com.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).