`Beautiful Losers' get their 15 minutes of fame


Museum exhibit focuses on angry young slackers

August 30, 2005|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Beautiful Losers, a fine exhibition of slacker art at the Contemporary Museum that highlights photography and video, brings to mind Matisse's question about whether the next generation of painters would carry forward the inspiration of Cezanne as he and Picasso had.

Matisse lived just long enough to see the ascendancy of abstract-expressionism and the triumph of the New York School. Yet even the pioneering modernist who ended his career crafting whimsical paper cut-outs might not have despaired completely over Jackson Pollack's drip paintings or Warhol's silk-screened Marilyns and soup cans.

Not so with Larry Clark's grimy, 1970s-era black-and-white photos of sex, gun violence and drug abuse among alienated Midwestern youths. It's difficult even to imagine what the master would have made of Clark's unabashedly explicit photos of prostitutes performing sex acts with teenage boys, for example, or his gleeful newspaper-clipping collages on children who murder their parents.

Clark influenced many younger photographers, including Tobin Yelland, Cynthia Connolly, Phil Frost, Ryan McGinley and Ed Templeton. And one hardly need be an art historian to surmise that there's no way Yelland's zonked-out adolescent misfits or Templeton's barely pubescent tobacco fiends could ever, ever, have emerged from the School of Paris.

Which raises an obvious question: Where do these images of aggressive, nihilistic adolescent rebellion come from?

Not from the social-documentary tradition of a Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans, I suspect, nor from the mainstream photojournalism of the great picture magazines of the postwar era such as Life and Look.

Instead, they are descendants of the deliberately transgressive alternative youth culture of punk and heavy metal in the 1970s, when the bright idealism of the flower children had devolved into the quagmire of Vietnam and the cynicism of Watergate, and devastating epidemics of crack cocaine and methamphetamines were just waiting to happen.

When Bruce Davidson photographed juvenile delinquents for Life magazine in the early 1960s, for example, he didn't gloss over their sex, booze and cigarettes. But his pictures still had a certain romantic poignancy that invited viewers to empathize with their subjects' painful struggle to find a way in the world.

Davidson's teens may have been the proverbial rebels without a cause, but at least they seemed capable of having a cause. One could even imagine them being touched by something like idealism, however misdirected.

The troubled adolescent gen-Xers in Beautiful Losers, by contrast, seem congenitally incapable of any sort of transcendence - spiritual, emotional or otherwise.

They inhabit a bleak, self-degraded, graffiti-spattered, drug-benumbed universe so cruelly constricted by their own spectacularly bad choices that one can hardly contemplate their futures without a shudder. What kind of monsters will these undisciplined, angry, economically marginalized and desperately unhappy young people grow up to be?

I don't know what Evans - who photographed impoverished dust-bowl farmers, Southern sharecroppers and New York City subway riders in the 1930s and '40s - would make of the current generation of disaffected youths (though Evans belonged to the so-called Lost Generation of young men and women disillusioned by the horrific carnage of World War I).

Yet Evans' deadpan aesthetic, his simple acceptance of the vernacular landscape in front of his lens, with its wilderness of billboards, utility poles and electric signage, made him a visionary of the everyday. Ironically, the style he invented to depict a quite different era has provided a model for the young photographic artists of the hip-hop generation.

There is something of Evans' willful embrace of the commonplace in the best photographs in Beautiful Losers, which despite their depressing depictions of boredom, violence and squalor still manage to convey a kind of animal vitality that, unexpectedly, renders them both beautiful and true.

That is reason enough to visit this intelligent, occasionally shocking (the museum will not admit visitors younger than 17 unless accompanied by an adult), and unusually absorbing show.

The exhibition runs through Sept. 24. The museum is at 100 W. Centre St. Hours are Thursday through Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. and by appointment. A catalog accompanies the show. Call 410-783-5720.

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