Growing up, Scott Hug probably wasn’t too upset when his parents told him to go to his room—at least, if the room in question was anything like this one. Hug has transformed John Connelly’s cozily proportioned Chelsea gallery into the definitive adolescent retreat, in conjunction with the third issue of his magazine project K-48. Wallpapered floor to ceiling with juvenilia, cluttered with albums and action figures, and animated by Hug and his partners in crime, this rebel rec room is less about romanticizing those awkward years than offering an irreverent alternative to the flawed, mundane world of grown-ups. A mission statement asserts, “Teenage art is not an attempt to reclaim youth after it has passed, but an effort to expose the dishonesty of the domesticated adult experience.” Call it the new Outsider Art.
Hug invited some 70 of his closest friends, who happen to include popular kids like Lucky DeBellevue, Robert Melee, and Tracy Nakayama, to contribute to his project. He then arranged more than 100 of their works together with such indispensable teenage paraphernalia as 1970s blacklight posters, a thrift-store painting of Michael Jackson, and an Alyssa Milano workout tape. At first take, it all looks like the work of an anarchist pack rat, but innocence and experience are deliberately and expertly juxtaposed; Nietzsche shares the bedside-reading pile with Tolkien and the Cub Scout Handbook.
Hug is actually living the teenage fantasy, at least for the duration of the show: He sleeps in the plastic race-car bed, plays with the vintage Atari, and hosts parties for his friends after gallery hours. With a wiry frame, a mop of brown hair falling over his eyes and an initial aloofness that quickly morphs into enthusiasm, Hug, who says he’s 30, could probably pass for 17. Most of the “Bedroom” detritus is stuff he’s saved from his own childhood in Missouri or picked up in secondhand shops over the years. He admits to occasional forays onto eBay, particularly if an item has personal significance. “The town where I grew up was really white. When I was little, I wanted a black friend, so my mom got me a Lester doll,” Hug says, pointing to a printout of his latest coveted object.
Hug’s not alone in his regression obsession. Photographers like Justine Kurland, Collier Schorr, and Helen Van Meene have been fixated on the under-18 set for a while now, but most have a tendency to treat teenagers like exotic game. Here, the kids have a more authoritative presence. The students in Lucien Samaha’s yearbook-style portraits circa 1986, made while the artist was substitute-teaching at his former high school, overcome the indignities of bad perms and goofy, braces-studded grins. The plump, bikini-clad girl in Jay Massacret’s Rockaway radiates attitude that borders on sexual confidence; she’s worlds away from Rineke Dijkstra’s painfully self-conscious beachgoers. The confrontational subject of Ryan McGinley’s Eric, Jerking Off is, whatever else one might say, master of his domain.
Collage and drawing prove ideally suited to the rebel mind-set, perhaps because, as Rachel Howe’s “Teenage Art Manifesto” offers, “The tools of the teenage artist are cheap, simple and accessible.” Joe Grillo’s manic cut-and-paste jobs look convincingly like a misfit could have made them in art class, between sniffs of rubber cement. So do David West’s graphite sketches of his “Rad Friends,” if you squint a little. Aïda Ruilova’s delicately penciled vampire heads and Howe’s wistful, girly lap dogs are more assured, but still not too cool for school.
Part catalog, part zine, the corresponding issue of K-48 reproduces many of the “Bedroom” projects plus some notable extras, like Solvej Schou’s tribute to ’80s Brat Pack underdogs, Liz Armstrong’s Ghost World-esque tale of flirtation with a pathetic older man, and the DJ Kid 606’s impassioned defense of Britney Spears (“It’s not her job to be reading Maximum Rocknroll and Punk Planet and moving to New York. It’s just not who she is”). There are also more than a few teenybopper shots of electro groups, part of a music and fashion scene that seems inseparable—for better or worse—from the whole project.
One of the more studied contributions to K-48 is Mike Paré’s Teenage Geography, a CD-ROM video and text exploring “places where adults don’t go, places where only the underage hang out, such as beneath bridges or in hidden areas found on rural private property.” He could be describing the landscape of skateboarding, as mythologized in the recent film Dogtown and Z-Boys. “Skaters by their very nature are urban guerrillas,” wrote Craig Stecyk, an artist and hanger-on who clearly fancied himself the Walter Benjamin of Dogtown, in a 1976 piece for Skateboarder magazine. “They make everyday use of the useless artifacts of the technological burden, and employ the handiwork of the government/corporate structure in a thousand ways that the original architects could never dream of.”
Dogtown‘s legacy, the empty swimming pool that led to the aerial that led, roughly, to Tony Hawk and the half-pipe and skateboarding as we know it, inspired the centerpiece of “Session the Bowl” at Deitch Projects. Titled Free Basin, it’s a wooden version of an empty pool, fabricated by the New Mexico collective Simparch. It was last seen at Documenta where, Jeffrey Deitch recalls, “it was treated as a big post-minimal sculpture.” The kidney-shaped bowl is a fascinating and sensuous object, constructed on an elevated platform, with curved supports visible from beneath that suggest the ribs of a giant whale. Peering down from the bowl’s edge after hours, when it is empty, one can see scuff marks and streaks of shoe rubber on the pale wooden surface.
When the gallery is open, there are usually at least 10 skaters lining the rim of Free Basin, dropping one at a time into a free fall that gives way to a few seconds of controlled swoops. A sign warns, “All Skaters Must Wear Helmets,” but most don’t. The tremendous noise they make—an ominous rumbling like an elevated train, punctuated by the thwack of wheels and bodies hitting wood—is part of the show’s visceral experience.
Scattered around the gallery is an uneven assortment of work from artists associated with the skateboard scene. There’s an interesting wall of text-based collages from Daniel Joseph, who is also in K-48; a pornographic skateboard from Larry Clark of Kids fame; a great large painting from Barry McGee and a good small one from Chris Johanson. There are also numerous photos of sullen teens shredding, just to remind us what we’re looking at, and lots of what amounts to contained graffiti from authentic street artists such as RoStarr and Doze. It all looks a bit contrived, like Martha Cooper’s interactive tag wall, though the kids pausing on their way up to the bowl don’t seem to mind.
Playing the permissive parent, Deitch notes that there have been spontaneous parties in the gallery after hours, not to mention an opening extravaganza that was shut down by the police. With a recent show on the birth of hip-hop and another on Keith Haring just opened, he’s riding the wave of old-school nostalgia. Skate culture is already so commercial, though, that any attempt to claim it as an “anti-establishment art community” is beside the point. According to a 2000 statistic from the National Sporting Goods Association, more American kids ages six to 17 skate than play baseball. The X Games, televised on major networks, draw millions of viewers. Still, the sight of all those skaters zipping around the basin like heated molecules is something special. In the end, it’s their presence in the gallery, and Hug’s in the bedroom, that make us want to stay and hang out for a while.