Wheelin' and dealin'
As the borders blur between the street art scene and the museum world, a critic considers the ollies popped and champagne sloshed for skater-artists such as Neck Face and Simon Evans.
By Glen Helfand
THE LAST SKATEBOARD I rode had clay wheels, which is to say it was a long time ago. And currently, while I appreciate any form of nonpetroleum-based transportation, when a skater whooshes in front of my moving car, I grow peevish. Beyond the issues of safety, that rush of daredevil energy also points out a lifestyle choice that's far from my own analytical, urbane self-image. That person on the skateboard, to me, represents youthful rebellion, agility, daring, and well-developed leg muscles.
guardian photos by lori spears
I harbor the idea that a skateboard signifies a whole network, a brand if you will, of social arenas: certain bars, cement park benches, T-shirt stores (Upper Playground, for example), and even art openings. For someone who works in the art world, making it my business to look at and think about how art reflects our culture, an exhibition with clear ties to a skater-surfer-street scene raises issues that are often difficult to reconcile in the seemingly snoot realm of museums and cocktail parties. Is that sort of artwork meant to appeal primarily to an audience of peers? What happens to context when these cultures collide?
This week "Beautiful Losers," that traveling exhibition of "contemporary art and street culture" that was a hipster blockbuster at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts last summer (and appeared in Cincinnati before that), opens at the Orange County Museum of Art. I received a slick, four-color invitation to the opening addressed, in the heterosexual paradigm, to myself and a nonexistent missus. The O.C. seems like the perfect location to witness this festival of skater punk art and culture, as this well-heeled patch of suburban Southern California Bush country has also long been a hotbed of disaffected teens who find their alterna-identities with the help of punk bands, surfing, and skateboards. Yet the show is also a traveling extravaganza, the art-world equivalent of the once-thriving Lollapalooza tour a name-brand festival of a particular kind of youth culture. In this case, the unifying, albeit shifty, outsider brand identity might be called street, and the artists are the stars of their format.
The show includes some San Francisco (and former Bay Area) artists (Barry McGee, Chris Johanson, the late Margaret Kilgallen, Clare Rojas, Ari Marcopolous, Jo Jackson) who have been called the Mission School. The term seems to have stuck after it was used as the headline for an article I penned for the Bay Guardian three years ago almost to the day. The title emerged almost organically from interview subjects, and as a label, it has been received calmly as well as with understandable derision. To give a name to an identity or style is never completely accurate, and it can easily be misused.
What "Beautiful Losers" also signals is that street art has been around long enough to be codified by the mainstream and maybe even art history. It is another brand name that can be attached to a whole group of people who have things in common, as well as diverging agendas.
guardian photos by lori spears
It's an awkward position for any "outsider" youth movement. On one hand, it means viewers have greater access to the material, but on the other, it points to a great shift from the underground. "Beautiful Losers," the first show to really survey this scene, and one accompanied by a formidable catalog, currently serves as the official art historical standard regardless of the show's shortcomings, which include a lack of scholarship and a failure to wriggle free of an inherent sense of cliquishness. In the O.C. there's even a counter show, partly spearheaded by "Losers" curator Aaron Rose, titled "New Image Art Show," which takes place in a Costa Mesa skater clothing store called RVCA. "It's just the artists that didn't get sponsored by a skateboard company or for whatever reason didn't get the connection to the museums," Christian Jacobs, one of the show's organizers, told the OC Weekly. "These are the real losers," he added.
Realness is key when it comes to both youth culture and art making. There are unnamed codes of coolness and authenticity in representing subcultural generations. Underground zines and Web sites take the place of manifestos of the past, setting down style markers not so dissimilar to, say, the surrealists. Recognition is something that complicates a sense of purity of intention. A gallery show can either trigger a sense of pride or envy that one of our own is making it.
During the past three years, "street culture," as an art label, has bubbled up to become a widely used term, but to what does it really refer? "Beautiful Losers" and "Mission School" have now become convenient, if somewhat misleading, monikers for the wide range of identifying features marking a generational output. In the prologue to their surprisingly stately "Beautiful Losers" catalog, curators Rose and Christian Strike, founders of, respectively, Strength skater magazine and street gallery Alleged, state that the artists "come from a background where there are few rules and anything is possible."
The statement is one that allows for a lot of leeway and inclusion. As much as there is an exclusive tone to the organizing principle of the show, the kind of artwork included in it is rather diverse. There's a kind of you-know-it-when-you-see-it aspect to street art, but I think it's worth noting a few attributes that apply:
It's humble in spirit and crafty in its materials (recycled lumber or canvas, spray paint and hot glue).
It might be painted directly on the wall on the street or in the gallery.
It is seemingly tossed off quickly and displayed in constellations of many related or unrelated images and/or objects.
Its themes are urban, including poverty, drugs, sex, and disaffected stances.
It is funky.
It comes with the outlaw, antiestablishment swagger of engaging in the illegal act of tagging.
It's drawing-intensive and finds roots in comic books.
It can include artfully offhand, Larry Clark-inspired photos of real sex and drug taking. (Clark's latest film, Ken Park, concerns perversely sexual, suicidal skateboarders who seem barely pubescent.)
Its DIY ethos is expressed in artist-run galleries and distributed in inexpensive forms: zines, broadsides, small drawings, T-shirts, and plastic collectibles.
Crossing disciplines is as common as a group/community identity, involving crews of artists, DJs, musicians, writers, and videomakers.
It's the new punk rock.
It's male-dominated and dressed in thrift store-gleaned work pants, unraveling T-shirts, and baggy boxer shorts.
It can include sleek, cheeky graphic design and video production.
Street artists arguably strike an anti-intellectual stance, one that stems more from direct experience of the world than from theoretical musings.
It's often touted as being an untrained, outsider production, yet it has trickled into reputable galleries, museums, and art school graduate programs as a viable genre without much resistance from either side.
It gets offers from MTV and extreme sports businesses.
Its diversity affirms the idea that as a label, "street art" is woefully inadequate.
Street art's stars are people such as McGee, Johanson, Ed Templeton, Harmony Korine, and Mike Mills (who just debuted his latest, rather major film, Thumbsucker, which stars Keanu Reeves and Tilda Swinton, at the Sundance Film Festival), with a less frequent nod to female artists including Rojas and Kilgallen (among the few women in "Beautiful Losers"). All of these artists are undisputable talents, each with their own styles and concerns. And most likely, they don't necessarily appreciate being branded with an aesthetic label. While they may be part of a generation and a community, they are each very independent artists in their own right.
Last summer I was invited to appear on Michael Krasny's Forum radio talk show on KQED-FM to discuss street art with "Beautiful Losers" cocurator Strike and others (www.kqed.org/epArchive/R408031000). I accepted, but reluctantly a show such as this, so invested in a hipster vibe, is critic-proof, and I feared my dissenting thoughts on it would just sound reactionary and old guard. My main concern with the exhibition was that it seemed complicit in the mythmaking and moneymaking that are very much a part of the street art scene, without offering a context or much of an entry point for those outside a target demographic of skateboard-toting kids in their teens and 20s.
In the radio conversation, Strike mentioned how the exhibition held appeal for people ages 18 to 80, a statement that struck me as a bit disingenuous. I countered that it seemed unlikely that octogenarians would need to check their boards at the door, as visitors were asked to do at the Yerba Buena show. Most cultural production has its own audience it's rare to see an artist who attracts a multigenerational crowd, much less an aesthetically diverse one. Those who go to events at 111 Minna Gallery, an art-bar venue that often features exhibitions of street art, are unlikely to be the same people who flood 49 Geary galleries for "First Thursdays," in the same way that there probably aren't many who subscribe to both street-oriented Juxtapoz, "a new magazine for a new art movement" as it bills itself, and Artforum, which exudes an international sense of intellectualized art-world cool.
The youth angle is boldly stated in the title of "Beautiful Losers" cocurator Rose's forthcoming $40 coffee table testament to his experience in running Alleged in the 1990s: Young, Sleek, and Full of Hell (D.A.P.). The terms are brash, shiny, and age-specific, yet there's irony to the fact that the book surveys a decade past. Just how urgent is the spirit of movement in something when it has hit mythic and art historical status?
Face the metal
Occasionally, however, the artists cross over. Right now in San Francisco, we can see two artists Neck Face and Simon Evans who nominally fit into the street art category yet demonstrate the vast range of its possibilities and the inadequacy of aesthetic branding. It may simply be an inevitable component of mainstream recognition in national magazines and establishment art museums. But what does it do to the art?
guardian photos by lori spears
Neck Face's energetic, horror movie-inspired drawings and paintings have appeared on unsanctioned outdoor walls and gallery walls: a show of his work is up till Feb. 19 at the Luggage Store Gallery (which has a particular allegiance to this type of art and is concurrently showing a lesser-known but equally interesting collaborative team called the Date Farmers), though his spray-painted goth monsters will undoubtedly last longer on various outdoor San Francisco walls. Neck Face, who recently turned 20 and lives in the Bay Area with his family, was the subject of a "Talk of the Town" piece in the New Yorker last year, a lifestyle portrait that revealed that the artist eats a lot of candy and that his work is collected by Beck. Despite his pseudonym's allusion to a homely lack of chin, in the article Neck Face is described as looking like "a cross between Steven Tyler and Mick Jagger." This kind of thing can have the effect of putting an artist on both literati and Teen Beat pop cultural maps.
He's also earned the appreciation of his peers. Sean Boyles, a young artist who works in Bay Area streets and galleries, has an apt way of describing how Neck Face fits into the scene: "If the whole community were a big high school, the "Beautiful Losers" would be like the popular skaters, who all the groupie girls hang around, and Neck Face would be like the weird metal kid who you would respect for doing his own thing, but would be a little unsure about."
Neck Face's work is as undeniably appealing as it is youthful. His characters, which can also be seen in Satans Bride!!!, a book recently published by KAWS (an artist featured in "Beautiful Losers"), seem to rise from an adolescent diet of gore films, heavy metal heroes, and Halloween booty mini-Snickers bars and Pixy Stix. The paintings and drawings at the Luggage Store, a suitably gritty urban setting for the Neck Face aesthetic, are often in an October palette of orange and black, and the characters, seemingly sprung from notebook doodles to a more expansive life in the art world, are sharp-toothed phallic monsters who hungrily devour young guys dressed only in their Jockey shorts. Blood spurts, and hairy legs (straight out of R. Crumb's comics) may be tossed by the wayside. Creatures with two and three heads abound. A spray-painted demon fills nearly a whole wall in the gallery, and it's an impressive presence, especially in the way Neck Face renders reptilian feathers with little spray paint lines.
As with many in the current crop of young artists, Neck Face's restlessness and skills have him working in other media. He has etched his demons onto car hoods with a welding torch and has a wall of steel masks with sharp teeth they're accessories borrowed from Hannibal Lecter's musty armoire.
While there's humor to these images, it's difficult to really pin down their tone. They're also somber, perhaps as expressive of personal anxieties as of cultural ones. Like the work of many street artists, Neck Face's nocturnal scrawls in public places and doodles on yellowing scratch paper exude an intimacy: they're done alone, with modesty. In a culture that reveres youth, Neck Face's age is an asset that can be sneered at, but part of the appeal of his work is its purity. The ambiguous tone of his images most likely stems from his tender age. It takes time to evolve into a solid stance.
Between hope and cynicism
At 32, British-born, San Francisco-based Evans seems to have honed his vision into something lasting. His street connection is circumstantial: Evans is a former professional skateboarder.
He makes a particularly strong showing in the just-opened Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) award exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, a venue miles away in spirit from Adobe Books, where Evans was "discovered" by gallerist Jack Hanley. The museum show recognizes four people (the other three, who aren't so easily categorized, are Rosana Castrillo Diaz, Shaun O'Dell, and Josephine Taylor) deemed by the institution to be Bay Area artists of "notable endeavor and exceptional promise," according to official statements. The selections may not be unknown to locals, but to an SFMOMA audience of thousands (who just really might be 18 to 80), this provides an introduction. (McGee and Johanson were previous winners, in 1996 and 2002, respectively.)
Evans wasn't trained in art school, and his work is humble, involves cheap materials (the SFMOMA show includes altered labels on ketchup and condiment bottles) and the use of drawing, and expresses themes of isolation and bemusement. His project also has an intimacy that makes it flexible in terms of venue. Viewers need to move in close to read the peculiar lists and notations that are usually rendered in tiny block letters. And they do. At the museum, people crowd around a piece and interact with it in the same way they might have in that tiny back-room gallery on 16th Street. Anyone who engages with these pieces enters into Evans's mapped universes of vast possibility.
Evans's work stems from a literate perspective, as he has also been a writer (although his writing hasn't, as far as I know, been published). The collages are filled with handwritten text, which, unlike some typeset forms of art, has a way of seducing us to read his musings on longing, anxiety, and hope. His intricate maps and chartlike compositions, often cohered with layers of transparent tape, have the quality of another age a kind of yellowed Victoriana mixed with contemporary ambivalence. The mixture, in those terms, is the epitome of a San Francisco feeling, one that stems from the artist's generation, which often finds itself stretched between hope and cynicism. Working often on a small scale that bears some relationship to books, Evans brings a quality of obsession to the fore. He'll cut tiny images from magazines, burn hundreds of cigarette holes to create a celestial-like structure, and shred his handwritten texts to confetti-size pieces.
In a collage, wordily titled A Small Graph of Sadness/Wednesday Advice Represented As a Pie Chart (2004), Evans renders random thoughts and observations on cutout pieces of paper and arranges them in a circular form more suited to business applications. One slice of the pie chart reads, "Thumb tacks go into walls not skulls." "Switzerland isn't just other people," another reads. Visually, the piece may bring to mind Mark Lombardi's obsessive charts of political intrigue, but Evans inserts layers of non sequitur humor and pathos along with the dread and dysfunction. Yet there is something undeniably sincere that comes through.
Tara McDowell, cocurator of the SECA show, writes that Evans's work is "one person's entire imagination, creating a made-from-scratch universe consumed with the peculiarities of the everyday, with all of its inevitable misunderstandings and mundane daily observations, whether they be terribly funny, painfully honest or both." The common objects and references may be equated with street art, but to look at these collages, the image of a skateboard is probably the furthest thing from your mind.
What's most compelling for viewers who have seen Evans's pictures before his work has quickly been incorporated into gallery and museum shows internationally is that there's a sense of development. Public notice seems to have given this untrained artist an impulse to hone his project. The new pieces at the SFMOMA seem tighter formally as well as conceptually. The rough edges are still there, but the alignment seems cleaner, the compositions more considered. It's apt to say Evans is hitting his stride.
As much as his work may touch on some of the attributes of street art, and despite the fact that he's ridden a skateboard, I wouldn't put Evans in that particular category. I would, however, say he's an artist to be reckoned with and he's someone whose work stands a fair chance of holding up in the future. It's too soon to say how Neck Face will grow into his artistic adulthood (but it's a fair bet he'll change his name). And in the wash, the fate of street art, as a youth movement, hinges on the act of growing up. "Beautiful Losers" may evolve into winners, and perhaps losers once again. That's part of the fun. You can't stay young, sleek, and full of hell forever.
Neck Face's mixed-media sculpture and paintings are on exhibit through Feb. 19, Mon.-Sat., noon-5 p.m., or by appointment, Luggage Store Gallery, 1007 Market, S.F. Free. (415) 255-5971.
Simon Evans's work is on display in the "2004 SECA Art Award" show through May 15, Thurs, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Tues., 11 a.m.-6 p.m., San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., S.F. $6-$10. (415) 357-4000.