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Beautiful Losers

Skateboards, Slang, and Symbols

Propounding the DIY ethic and jabbering about street cred are, by now, cliches, but something about the persistent vogue of skating culture makes me feel like a downright luddite. Beautiful Losers, at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, is a celebration of skateboard memorabilia and contemporary art inspired by skateboard culture. In the 1990s, a group of American artists barely out of their teens redefined youth subculture by connecting the dots between skateboarding, graffiti, street fashion, and music. From the emergence of the 1950s surf scene and its inextricable ties with punk and urban art, to the disaffected, swaggering ne'er-do-wells in the films of Larry Clark and Harmony Korine, skating has achieved mainstream status not only among today's youth but also among artists who recognize the public's twofold thirst for consumption and vicarious rebellion.

Co-produced by YBCA and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Beautiful Losers features paintings, sculptures, photography, film, video and web-based projects, and clothing and product design from the past decade. The exhibition also offers a succinct overview of early graffiti artists and designers who have driven the aesthetic progress of skateboard art. One of the highlights of the show is a sculptural installation of a full-scale skate bowl that acts as an encomium to the California style kidney-shaped swimming pool so often exploited for vertical skating. Because the exhibit allows skaters to take advantage of the space, wheels skidding against a polished surface serve as ambient sound.

The featured artists include vaunted figures such as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Andy Warhol along with local artists like Tommy Guerrero. What all these figures share in common is the manner in which they sculpt reality from appearrance. A perfect example of this tongue-in-cheek method is the authoritative and widely recognized "obey" image, which has no discernible meaning beyond having viewers search for one. The exhibition would have one believe that street artists are the true arbiters and idolmakers of our society. The mass telephone game of street culture clearly manifests itself on buildings, on sidewalks, on bathroom walls; in other words, tell a story and pass it on.

Brian Donnelly (a.k.a. KAWS) made his career altering posters and ads in telephone booths and bus stops, so naturally, he riffs off a similar technique. His 2004 sculpture, "Chum" is equal parts pink, puffy Marshmallow Man, Mickey Mouse sendup, and comic book stalwart. It's a summary disruption of and tribute to the kind of iconic characters that pepper the landscape of our television-imbibing collective unconscious.

If KAWS plays with the ubiquitous nature of commercial icons, Todd James' drawings mark the sine qua non of adolescent culture. His "Never Forgive Action" is a bubbly collection of line drawings that enthusiastically bleed over onto the white walls. Here is a saccharine-coated crayon rebellion of prepubescent anxieties, unctuous comic book baddies, and bare-bummed women whose presence seems to be fueled by the vagrant fantasies of horny 14-year-olds. The work is full of text and whimsical doodlings that look like they were ripped right out of a five-subject notebook. "Never Forgive Action" is packaged in a primitive, cartoonish playfulness that's rife with the subversive vocabulary of street urchins and restless teenagers.

Skateboard culture is profuse with the mixing of folk tradition and commercial art, and old, imported graphic conventions often flank contemporary iconography. In the work of Ryan McGinness, art is composed of so many icons and symbols, and no originals exist. In his "Flacci Non Faccio", in brown latex paint, and "Untitled (Project Rainbow Series)", viewers are presented with a monumental trompe l'oeil that takes the viewer deep into a fractal-based, worlds-within-worlds structure where magical creatures and floating signifiers run astray in a rainbow of color. From far away, McGinness's work resembles a chaotic whirl of tinctured blobs, but on closer inspection, is elegantly dotted with all manner of familiar emblems. McGinness provides a narrative for symbols that have been purposefully divorced from a larger context, and in the process, he elevates modern graphic design methodology to art.

Of course, the exhibit wouldn't be complete without its share of photography. Ed Templeton's "Cul-de-Sac of Lameness" marks an intersection between skateboarding and graphic design. A melange of drawings and photographs - of everything from grumpy sleepers warding off camera blows to playful couples demonstrating their bawdy appetites - is playfully filled with text and semi-biographical burblings. It's a brilliant piece that reads as a gigantic postcard paean, a "here's what I saw" testament that covers the nomadic effusions of greasy-haired, anemic-looking youth. Looking at the various pieces that make up the whole reminded me of my middle school, where wearing a white tee-shirt covered with the signatures and giddy scrawlings of classmates was considered fashionable.

There's an overtly tense relationship between the artists and popular culture, even as folks like Mike Mills design everything from record covers to Mark Jacobs digs. But by dint of being immersed in popular culture, the artists transform it effectively. If pop art featured classically trained artists attempting to layer their work with irony to liberate art from cultural pretense, the new troupe of urban artists have exhumed some crucial icons of popular culture and personalized them accordingly, making sense of a world dizzyingly steeped in commerce and strange symbols.

Beautiful Losers indicates more than just a recrudescence of slacker culture - it's about turning symbols upside down, recognizing the way mass media manipulates and titillates, making off with time-honored icons by the skin of one's teeth and giving them a pert makeover. The effect sometimes looks like a botched experiment, but one that's spattered with self-conscious smarts and the kind of ideological gusto that's astonishing in artists this hip. Color me uncool and move over, Warhol. There are some new kids in town.

Beautiful Losers will be on exhibit through October 10th
at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission St @ 3rd, SF, 94103
Phone: 415.978.ARTS (2787)
Hours: Thu-Sat 12-8 pm, Sun, Tue, Wed 12-5 pm
The first Thursday of every month, 11 am-8 pm
www.yerbabuenaarts.org