Having flipped the finger at the mainstream for more than a decade, this tribe of artists, designers, and skate punks is now poised to bring its dissenting voice to prime time. "Beautiful Losers" and "Free Basin," a duet of exhibitions at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, celebrate -- and threaten to decimate -- the raw vitality of the street culture the artists have pioneered.
The unofficial soundtrack for "Beautiful Losers" is the whoosh and bang of skaters taking a crack at the full-size wooden skate bowl (modeled after California's iconic kidney-shaped pools) that fills the museum's first gallery. The aptly named Free Basin, designed by the art team SIMPARCH, is touted as a monumental sculpture. And while a stroll under its sinuous ribs affirms its formal charms, it is -- more importantly -- a slamming place to skateboard. SIMPARCH imagines Free Basin as a social experiment, the nexus for a dialogue between skaters and museumgoers. Though few words are exchanged on the platform, it does seem a fruitful pairing: Legions of hard-core boarders tote their decks into Yerba Buena to skate for free, while tourists and art lovers admire their graceful carves (and crashing wipeouts) from the sidelines.
Resistance to consumerism and corporate culture pervades "Beautiful Losers." Several of the artists on view got their graphic start by tricking out their own boards, and a DIY aesthetic still righteously prevails. Pro skater Ed Templeton's installation of photos, paintings, and scribbled musings documents the messy, sexy, low-rent lifestyle of the deliberately disenfranchised, while Todd James' raunchy mural features big-bottomed ladies, scrawled with pencil and correction fluid on discarded wallpaper. Cheryl Dunn's contribution, a rapturous video titled Come Mute, presents a stifled young secretary whose creative responses to the tedium of office life (hallway handstands, elevator pirouettes) prove contagious, inspiring strangers to shake it on the streets. And Brian Donnelly (aka KAWS) spirits away bus shelter ads under cover of darkness and perverts them with acrylic parasites before returning them to their glassy homes.
The museum's stairwell is adorned with a collage by Shephard Fairey, whose Andre the Giant posters have invaded urban surfaces since the early '80s. Fairey is a self-styled revolutionary, countering the barrage of commercial images that confront us daily with his own virulently effective guerrilla ad campaign ... for nothing. "OBEY," Fairey's stickers command, from atop bus shelters and phone booths and construction barricades. But without any further instructions except Andre's ghoulish face, we're left to wonder why we'd listen to a poster in the first place. It's a slick inversion: Propaganda designed to lay bare the machinations of social control -- to neutralize all the other propaganda we're fed.
What happens, though, when the very system you've been vilifying turns around and embraces not just you, but your disdain? Nike, Volkswagen, and the Gap have all invited lifelong skateboarder and design wunderkind Mike Mills to make commercials for them, banking on his stylish insouciance to sell their products to an increasingly media-savvy consumer. It's a fine line between cashing in and selling out, but Mills skips merrily over it: Even in the belly of the beast, he's intent on savaging the system. His spot for MasterCard -- on view in a reel of his work -- portrays an elegant auctioneer, deadpanning a sale of the letter B ("Immortalized by Shakespeare; popularized by Cookie Monster"), the color red, and gravity, among other intangibles.
The art world, like Madison Avenue, has a talent for sucking the life force out of radical critique simply by endorsing it. Barry McGee and Josh Lazcano send up this phenomenon with a pair of motorized mannequins, stationed in Yerba Buena's windows, which spray their rebel tags on the museum walls with full institutional approval. These clever dummies mock the whole endeavor of gussying up graffiti art for the gallery: It's tough to maintain your street cred when you're backed by a glossy full-color catalog.
I'm told that in the early days of New York's Museum of Natural History, big-game hunters were shipped to the farthest corners of the Earth to shoot and stuff endangered species for the museum's lifelike dioramas. No matter that they were accelerating the process of extinction -- the animals would be preserved for the edification of generations to come. While I'm glad that the work of the artists in "Beautiful Losers" and "Free Basin" is being shared with a wider audience, I hope that these exhibitions won't hasten the demise of such a wicked brand of irreverent idealism. Then again, I guess even beautiful losers have to make a living somehow.