It seems that each one of my posts here leads to the other. I spent the last bigger post yearning about ‘cool’ artists posses, or lack thereof, and now the Walker is inviting two really COOL artists, Chris Johanson and Jo Jackson, to speak on Thursday night, and screening the doc Beautiful Losers. In addition to that, Johanson & Jackson have an opening at the Art of This gallery on Saturday. COOL. WACTAC is cooler than cool. In the last couple years they have brought the coolest of the West Coast kids. First Ed Templeton, then the guys from Giant Robot, now Johanson & Jackson. I don’t know if they can get any cooler. That will also be the last time I use ‘cool’ in this entry.
After flipping through Johanson’s book, Please Listen I Have Something To Tell You About Whatis (Witt noted our Arty Pants installation kind of resembled Johanson’s own installations and suburban paintings), I was excited about him visiting. Further research into Johanson & Jackson revealed the phenomena of the “Mission School” movement that really gained steam in San Francisco a few years ago.
It is difficult, as is evidenced in both articles, to market these artists. Not conventionally avant-garde, their involvement with the graffiti community and familiarity with cul-de-sacs, as well as being on the “wrong coast,” lends an easy title: outsider art. But, Modigliani argues, “the very idea of an outsider is problematic and naively nostalgic – it assumes you are outside of something, presumably the artworld.” Well you might say they are outside the art world because they are not in New York. But there is no lack of an art community in California – by marketing a group who has gained popularity outside of the Bay Area as “outsider art,” it tells the rest of the world that the art community in California is just that – outsiders. This is not a good way to promote these Mission School artists and any future artists wishing to gain relevance in the rest of the country.
This is hard. We know what, in the past, has happened to artists who came from the “streets” into the gallery. I’m talking about Basquiat, Keith Haring, and most recently, that former trouble-maker Banksy who now is selling his stencil art for millions (and I love Banksy, I do). We’ve also all seen Style Wars (at least I have about five times), that documentary about the origins of hip hop, featuring graffiti artists who, in the early 1980′s, riding on the coattails of Basquiat, got a few gallery shows and then were abruptly tossed aside, only to reappear in exhibitions with the word ‘graffiti’ in them. In an episode of Art21, Barry McGee says: “Every time I do a gallery piece, I have to put 110 percent more outdoors, to keep the street cred. It’s the audience I’m most concerned with.”
Modigliani argues that most of the artists in this Mission School movement – a short list is Johanson & Jackson, Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, Claire Rojas – were educated in private art schools. In his opening essay, Aaron Rose, curator and director of “Beautiful Losers,” the exhibition and film of the same name, states, “All the artists included in Beautiful Losers have at some point broken the law in order to express themselves. No other past group of artists can boast this. That is not to say, of course, that there haven’t been situations in the past where artists have brushed with the law, but never has it been such an intrinsic element of their culture.” Is this statement, then quick clarification, what should bring them together?I prefer to associate them with this quote from Jack Hanley in Helfand’s article: “So many of the artists play music, it’s truly a community, and they see each other at more than just openings.”
Like I said, this is a really difficult subject, because I don’t think this roundabout logic and arguing should take anything away from the artists. Let’s go back to this group of West Coast artists – their work is fun, approachable, and aesthetically inviting. Their approach is organic, their influences recognizable, and they seem to have the ability to acknowledge the dilemma of being marketed as outsider graffiti artists or acknowledge it and move on. They’ve learned from the 80s. It is this ability that moves a group of artists, or anyone, really, from being a target for negativity and criticism, to that next level of “cool.” That’s why I love the artists of the Ferus Gallery so much. They are not necessarily making fun of themselves, because that can get tiresome too, but acknowledging something outside of themselves, showing that they are aware and intelligently incorporating these things.
“Drumming Circle,” 2003, by Chris Johanson (actually, I just found out this piece really is about the ‘rhythm of life’) and Barry McGee and Josh Lazcano’s animatronic taggers.
THAT is what makes them so cool. And, I suppose, the fact that their art is really, really COOL.
*Images from Deitch Projects, Stretcher, Banksy’s website.
** Also the title is a reference to Grease and not much else.