You Need to See This Wild Documentary About 90s Misfit Skaters and Artists
'Beautiful Losers' turns ten this month, but it still feels radical.
Ed Templeton, Barry McGee, and Cheryl Dunn in Tokyo, 2001 by Ivory Serra
“I came here for something, and it's already gone,” director Aaron Rose told VICE recently, talking about how it felt moving to New York in 1989. Between drugs and AIDS, the city’s creative community had lost a swath of its population by the early 90s, and the bohemianism that drew people there threatened to fade.
But in the decade or so before 9/11, there was a generation of “creative delinquents” who thrived in Lower Manhattan’s relative desolation—artists like Harmony Korine, who made high art out of debauchery, or Margaret Kilgallen, who turned traditional sign-painting into something fresh and relevant. When this group of artists found each other, they began gathering on the Lower East Side at Alleged Gallery, a 2,000-square-foot storefront Rose rented for $400 a month.
“The circle around Alleged is one of the most important communities in the past 30 years,” art dealer and gallerist Jeffrey Deitch told VICE from his space on Grand Street. “Almost all important art is connected to a community. They support each other, they encourage each other, they criticize each other. And because there was a fusion of art, music, and social life, it wasn't just a place where you hung up works of art and left. There was a whole community around it.”
By the time the scene began to break up in the early 2000s, Rose realized he needed to assemble an exhibit, a kind of mini-retrospective, of the artists who came up at Alleged. He named it after a book by Leonard Cohen— Beautiful Losers . The large and diverse group of artists included in the show—Spike Jonze, Shepard Fairey, KAWS, Os Gemeos, Ryan McGinley, Clare Rojas, Chris Johanson, and more—largely emerged from subcultures like skateboarding, graffiti, punk, and hip-hop.
The exhibition also inspired a documentary, which followed a handful of the Alleged artists from their rag-tag beginnings in the Lower East Side to national prominence in DC, LA, and Nashville, bringing the ethos of skater culture into the mainstream. When the documentary Beautiful Losers opened ten years ago, in 2008 at IFC Center in Greenwich Village, Rose said there was a line out the door waiting to celebrate a group of skateboarders, graffiti writers, filmmakers, and artists whose seemingly disconnected creative practices had formed a kind of subcultural movement they only recognized in hindsight.
In an interview early in the film, artist Ed Templeton walks backward down a Southern California sidewalk and succinctly sums up the spirit of the movement. “As a child,” he says with a grin, “you're always drawing and coloring and doing crafts. I think the weird tragedy is when you become an adult, you stop creating. I just feel like I was lucky enough to never lose that.”
That sort of resourceful creativity bound many of the Beautiful Losers artists together. There was a celebratory quality in the art-making, as if everything—t-shirts, sneakers, walls, and canvases—could be transfigured into art.
There’s also mischievous irreverence in a lot of the interviews. One of the film’s highlights is an interview with Korine in Nashville, the auteur's hometown. Resting nonchalantly against a mosaic sculpture of a dragon, he spins a story about a gruesome decapitation by switchblade like he’s a character in Waiting for Guffman. Behind the scenes, Rose’s co-director Joshua Leonard got so fed up with Korine’s increasingly far-fetched yarns that he walked off set. But youthful antagonism is also what made these artists so compelling. They were free-spirited enough to make fun of art and all its pretensions.
Writer and curator Carlo McCormick was working as a bartender at Max Fish when Alleged was in full swing, and told VICE the scene developed organically. “It came out of something really homegrown,” he said, “like a weed on the Lower East Side. There was a lot of hope and faith, and also a lot of doubt. There was cynicism but also sincerity.”
Those elements seem contradictory, but after Beautiful Losers premiered, the filmmakers and artists put together a series of workshops for New York City kids. Instead of an after party, they converted a Mott Street storefront into a makeshift schoolroom and hosted graffiti, photography, and skateboard design workshops. Rose insists community, not debauchery, was at Alleged's core. “We felt it was more in keeping with what Beautiful Losers was about,” he said.
In the New York Times review of Beautiful Losers, critic Nathan Lee wrote at the time that “though Mr. Rose can’t be blamed for waxing nostalgic, he can’t much expect us to care about so fawning and self-serving a document.” It’s surprising that just ten years after its release, the gritty downtown of Beautiful Losers feels so distant. But New York is a city of constant reinvention, and a decade or two is long enough for momentous cultural shift.
Rose is using the anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on the city’s DIY scene now and then. A group show celebrating the Beautiful Losers anniversary is on view till September 1 at The Hole. “Everyone from the movie and everyone who was important at Alleged is in this show,” Rose said. “There's one really beautiful piece from Margaret Kilgallen. Barry McGee is sending us a new painting. Chris Johanson has three new paintings for it. Ed Templeton has a beautiful painting. Deanna Templeton has a bunch of photographs, and Cheryl Dunn has a lot of photographs.”
There will also be artists whose work wasn't featured in Beautiful Losers, like Rita Ackermann, a longtime Sonic Youth collaborator who was involved with Alleged Gallery. “We made a film together in 1994 that Thurston Moore did the score for, and nobody's ever seen it. I'm really excited to have that in the show.”
The anniversary exhibition has a charitable tie-in; proceeds from an art auction benefit Red Hook Labs, which helps at-risk kids in New York City. There's also an apparel component (these are the artists who cut their teeth on Thrasher magazine, after all). RVCA is launching a clothing collection designed by Beautiful Losers artists, and California-based company Stance are slated to release a pair of socks.
Rose is also publishing all the interviews for Beautiful Losers that ended up on the cutting-room floor—including never-before-seen footage of Ian MacKaye and a charming Dash Snow, who speaks to the camera while a mysterious masked man sits on the floor, playing a singing bowl. There are 100 archival interviews in all, and Rose is releasing them for free online.
The Times may have labeled Beautiful Losers self-indulgent, but Deitch pointed out that Rose performed a service by preserving a scene from New York City’s recent past. “Something that I learned,” he said, “is that even if you're involved in something very exciting in art and culture, if you don't document it, it can just disappear," he said. "Aaron was very astute to document it and make sure it has its place in the cultural discourse. If he hadn't made that effort, the whole history would slowly disappear. It's also a very good story.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Laura Hutson Hunter on Instagram.