Photo courtesy of Laguna Art Museum "Surf Culture" is a beautiful show filled with beautiful things to look at. It has Serious Rooms and History Rooms to trace the influence of surf culture on commercialization—or was it vice versa?—and it has a whole lot of boards. The people who will care about this most are surfers. They can look at V-bottoms and tri-fins and flapdoodles and big, old, solid planks of wood from the last century, and they can get all wild-eyed and obsessive and ignore their women. For a change.
The follow-up to the Laguna Art Museum's 1993 "Kustom Kulture" (frequently described by critics as "seminal," presumably not because of the ubiquity of menfolk in its artists' roster), "Surf Culture" has all kinds of theoretical folderol in place to reassure the folks at the New York Timesthat this is serious. It's a high-art/lo-art tightrope that requires much in the way of scholarly essays on "cultural resonance" and "imperialism and exile" to soothe the critics and crusty old patrons who might otherwise wonder what the museum's staff has been smoking between waves. (Have they stopped being pissed-off about the Guggenheim's motorcycle show yet?) Luckily, the acrobatic feats of imbuing stupid-but-entertaining shit with Great Import were perfected some time ago by the cast involved. Guest curator Tyler Stallings had fabulous lowbrow shows at the Huntington Beach Art Center on things like UFOs and skateboards; museum director Bolton Colburn brought Robert Williams' cha-chas grandes to the bluehairs with "Kustom Kulture"; and curator Craig Stecyk—well, he's the guy who made Dogtown & Z-Boys. Jealous?
As one who doesn't care about surf boards (more important, as one who's terribly uninformed about them), I have little to impart about that section of the exhibit, and it's a big section. There are, however, some specialty boards created specifically as artworks that are terribly extravagant and breathtaking in their aesthetic. One is by Kevin Ancell, a surfer who moved from SoCal to the Bay Area (and whose several pieces in the show are probably the strongest out of hundreds). It's inlaid with a perfectly symmetrical and intricate design of aquamarine abalone shell, glimmering and shining like the moon. Another is covered with a piece of silk, hand-painted in Japan's oldest and proudest kimono house, of a peach-colored tropics scene that's then overlaid with resin. A surfboard made of silk! And a $20,000 piece of silk, no less, just to make sure it's the most decadent thing this side of George Argyros' dinner plate. Oh, how I miss the Boom-Boom '90s.
The exhibit grounds itself (and adds a little museum cred) in the Finish Fetish and Light & Space of the '60s. Artists such as Peter Alexander were making resined cloud boxes and such artists as John McCracken were making resined planks out of the same materials that were transforming surfing. You know. Um. Like resin. Of course, that these artists (who are the closest things to heroes we have in the SoCal art world) were scoffed at mercilessly by the East Coast overlords was probably predictable. They were regarded as shallow, bubbleheaded prettyboys making "pretty playthings for the rich." Kind of like surfers today, except that they actually made stuff.
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We've always been fans of Sandow Birk, who's represented here by North Swell, a large-scale version of his Washington Crossing the Delaware, peopled by surfers instead of ragged soldiers. And I'm thrilled to see Ancell's work for the first time. In addition to his beautiful surfboard, he has both paintings and incredibly cast statues. The statues are animatronic hula girls, cast from life. Everything down to the creases in their palms are perfect, though I was particularly enthralled by their heavy, nipply breasts. The women sway and shimmy gracefully, until you get closer to them and see their bruised eyes and their gang tattoos and their track marks. When Ancell tells me Aloha Oe is about imperialism (and probably exile, too), I actually believe him. There's nothing shallow at all about the work, even though it's entertaining, too. His painting is similar to Birk's—Pomo appropriation of the classics, starring surf hotties as heroes—but painted with more realist depth and shadow and the inky black background of a Vermeer.
And there's more and more and more. There are famous ukuleles and funny, dated film posters. There's a Big Daddy Roth "car" over which to cream and old stills of the Duke. There's everything and then some. Some might think this unfocused or too-ambitious. I think it saves the rest of us from having to look at a bunch of goddamn surfboards.
The only thing missing? I would like to see a little more of the homoeroticism—the kind of black-and-white shots of '50s homos in tight trunks—that saved LACMA's recent California retrospective from being a total disaster. But then, when wouldn't I?
"Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing" at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Dr., Laguna Beach, (949) 494-8971. Open daily, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Through Oct. 6. $5-$7.