INTRODUCTION - ARI MARCOPOULOS: OUT & ABOUT
Aaron Rose / Ari Marcopoulos: Out & About / September 15, 2005
The following is the introduction that appears in the book Ari Marcopoulos: Out & About (Alleged Press, 2005).
Sometimes in order to look forward we have to look back. I begin with this statement for not only does this text serve as an introduction to a volume of over fifteen years of work by photographer Ari Marcopoulos, but it also launches this exciting new series of books, which I am editing under the banner of "Alleged Press." The idea behind these books is to spotlight a group of artists and photographers who I feel have had a significant effect on underground culture while at the same time solidifying a place in the mainstream of creative consciousness. The series is historical in nature, yet strives for a completely modern take on the works and lives of the artists it will spotlight. I feel we are living in an exciting time. The 20th Century is over, yet the new millennium has yet to really find a voice for itself. This "in between" period finds us faced with processing the baggage of the last one hundred years, while also being asked to look ahead and dream of what will happen in the next. It is the same in this particular book. While in essence we are looking back at one photographer's particular history in New York at the end of the century, at the same time we launch forward with this edition into a new world of creation and documentation. For these reasons alone this publication should be seen as an exciting occasion on many fronts.
In many ways it seems fitting that we should launch this series with a book of photographs by Ari Marcopoulos, for he is one artist who has almost effortlessly managed to bridge the past, present and future into a cohesive body of work while completely avoiding the common trappings of being simply about "back in the day", or conversely "the next big thing". There are numerous photographers who have capitalized quite successfully on either one of these particular genres, but it is rare to find one whose approach is so effortless and timeless that it transcends fads, styles and time periods to create a body of work that is as valid now as when he first began shooting. I met Ari Marcopoulos in 1993, when I ran a small gallery on the Lower East Side in New York. We were introduced through a mutual artist friend, Dave Aron, whom Ari had met on the street. At that time, Ari had just begun a series of portraits of a small group of New York City skateboarders of which Dave was a part, and one day Dave brought Ari by the gallery. At first I couldn't figure him out. Our scene at the time was really quite young. Our average age was 22-25 years old, and Ari was at least a decade older. He was married, with a baby and to tell the honest truth I personally was a bit weary of him. However, after hanging around with him a few times, it became clear that although he may have been an outsider to our scene, he understood us all in a very authentic way. Ari was (and still is) pretty much an overgrown adolescent. He has a biting wit, a sarcastic streak and a dark sense of humor that at the time fit right in with our group. He even dressed like a teenager! I must admit that when I met Ari, I knew very little about the art of photography. Some friends of mine took pictures, but I was pretty much a novice when it came to any kind of critical discussion of the medium. One day Ari brought over a copy of his first book, Portraits from the Studio and The Street, and I remember kind of scratching my head at it at first. The book was a small hardcover volume, filled with black and white photos of many of the stars of the 1980s art world and other denizens of the street. Photographs of artists such as Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Brice Marden were intermixed with shots of homeless people and groups of homeboys posing in Times Square in front of homemade Gucci backdrops. Of course I thought the photos were cool, but at the same time that old New York seemed so far from the life we were living at the time. He also showed us films he had made over the years. One film in particular Larry Wright, was especially memorable. Shot in grainy 16mm footage, it documented a day in the life of Wright, a young African American subway drummer who made his kit from pots, pans and milk-crates. All of these works were very intriguing to me and we were all curious to hear more. Ari spoke to us about moving from The Netherlands to New York in the 1980s and his job printing photographs for Andy Warhol. He talked about meeting his wife Jennifer Goode and starting a family in the East Village. He spoke about his past photos and about his relationship with Jean Michel Basquiat. Ari and Jean Michel were friends and Ari would tell us stories about Basquiat's art and hanging out with him and sometimes draw parallels to our little scene. Myself and the other artists that were hanging around became big fans of Basquiat as a result of these photographs, and because I was introduced to his image through Ari, I always somehow felt as though he was my friend too. I think a lot of us did. Those photos ended up embedding themselves into my psyche in a very profound way and were perhaps the first time I ever considered history and how it might relate to the life we were living at the time. We were just a bunch of skaters and misfit kids. We didn't have art degrees to draw upon and in many ways Ari became our teacher of sorts (which is ironic because he's a high school dropout himself). He showed us what it was like to live a creative life through and through, in every aspect of life and his documentation served as a wonderful example of the fruits of that kind of existence.
In the mid 1990s Ari did a small exhibition in my gallery along with much younger photographers Tobin Yelland and Joshua Wildman, both from the skate world. The exhibition, titled "The Happiest People in the World" was a wonderful hodgepodge of a show with photographs literally covering the walls. Hanging the exhibition was a great experience, with a bunch of the local skaters hanging around, drinking 40s and goofing off until the early hours of the morning. The whole scene was very much a celebration. Ari presented a grouping of the portraits of some of these same kids and I remember looking at them and suddenly understanding Ari's words about the similar lineage between our generation and the people in his first book. Ari didn't skate at the time, but he would always follow on his bicycle so he could keep up with the skaters. All hours of the night, he would roll around lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn Banks under the Brooklyn Bridge and through the midtown financial district following these packs of skateboarders on their runs. It was always amazing to me the way this group of kids, who were for the most part really tough and sometimes troubled, accepted Ari into their scene so completely. There was just something in his personality that said, 'Hey man, it's cool", and I think everyone picked up on that. The photographs that came out of that time became some of the most seminal images of the New York City skate scene in the 1990s. These photographs, mostly black and white, featuring professional skateboarders like Quim Cardona, Jeff Pang, Chris Pastras and Julien Stranger, not only held their own amongst the work of some of the best documentary photographers in history, but also had a major effect on the world of skateboard visuals at the time. Some of these images ended up being used for advertisements for skate products in magazines and set a visual standard for how the New York City skate scene looked to the outside world during that time. In 1995, Transworld Skateboarding, one of the most famous skateboard magazines in the world published a portfolio of Ari's work. In it he juxtaposed photographs of Basquiat with photos of the New York skate scene and in some ways laid a foundation for the works in this book. Many of the skaters in the photos would later go on to be cast in Larry Clark's film, Kids and Ari was on the scene during the production and aftermath of the hype that surrounded that project. In fact, both Larry and Ari were pretty much shooting the same group of kids at the same time, but with completely different results. While Clark's photos were bright, colorful portraits imbued with a subtle sexuality, Ari's photos were always poetic and hard. Think Ari's Charles Bukowski as opposed to Clark's Jean Genet. This is not to discount the images Clark was making at the time, it's just that Ari's photos somehow seemed closer to the source, perhaps less voyeuristic than Clark's. He developed a particularly close relationship with Justin Pierce, who played the character Casper in the film. For a time the two became partners in crime. I think Justin found in Ari a mentor and a friend and the images they created together (because all of Ari's photos really are a collaboration between photographer and subject) are some of the most touching photographs of Justin ever taken. Justin passed away in 2001, which was a shock to the whole scene at the time, but due to the fact that Ari managed to forge such a close relationship with him, the images left behind capture all of the life that we could ever need, and continually help ease the pain for each and every one of us who knew him. Collaborations like that with Justin are not uncommon for Ari. He has a wonderful sixth sense about people and is in fact very discerning about whom he takes photos of. He is drawn to creativity, charisma, and the outsider spirit and these qualities pervade every photograph he has ever shot. Whether it be a portrait of a person or a lonely urban landscape, each and every image is born of obsession, framed with precision and breathes an alluring poetic darkness.
What Ari was doing photographically with the art and music stars of the Eighties is the same thing he was doing in our little misfit art scene in the Nineties and he still continues today. He is consistently seeking style, substance and spirit in the places most people forget to look. He is "Out and About," exploring the world in search of subjects and situations from which we all can learn. It's true that the photographs in this volume represent a time and place in New York that is long gone now. In early 2000, Ari and his family left the city and moved to Northern California. In many ways, that move served as a metaphor for the changes New York City has undergone in recent years. The streets are no longer filled with that wild, uncontrollable spirit that once was. The East Village has been cleaned up now and with it, much of that outsider spirit has moved on too. But thanks to the photographs of Ari Marcopoulos some evidence of that time can live on -- not only in the pages of this book, but in the hearts and minds of everyone whom Ari's photographs have touched. It is my sincere desire that this book serve not only as a document of this by gone era, but as a learning experience for all who view it, in the same way Ari has been such a teacher for me.