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Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing


Surf's Up at the San Jose Museum of Art! On Saturday, August 16, 2003, Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing, a major exhibition surveying the connection between the visual arts and surfing, will fill the entire second floor of the Museum's New Wing. Organized by the Orange-County-based Laguna Art Museum, the exhibition has been featured in The New York Times as well as numerous other national publications throughout its tour with stops in Hawaii and Virginia Beach, VA.

The San Jose Museum of Art will celebrate the opening of the exhibition with back-to-back special events beginning with an opening night party, featuring Santa Cruz surfer band The Concaves, on Saturday, August 16 from 7pm to 10pm (SJMA members free; non-members $12.) and an all-day community-oriented outdoor "surf shindig" with hula dancers, surfer music, art activities, Woodies parked in the plaza, and more, on Sunday, August 17 from 11am to 5pm. All "surf shindig" activities will be free of charge.

For many, the very notion of an "art history of surfing" suggests an oxymoron - how could such a popular past-time have anything to do with serious art? Yet this exhibition sets out to prove otherwise. The catalogue states: "The exhibit is ambitious, covering the history of surfing - in paintings, posters, photographs, film and artifacts - from ancient Peru and Polynesia to the 21st Century. It features artists who surf and surfers who make art, pop icons like Gidget and serious works that struggle with the meaning of American colonialism."

Surf Culture offers an overview of the fine art, kitsch, myth-making, social commentary, personal expression, technology, and the mass marketing of surfing. Vintage photographs, artifacts, and more than 57 surfboards will also be included. About 20 boards from Northern California collections have been added to the San Jose show. All of the artists presented in this exhibition have achieved prominence in their respective callings: as artists who surf and surfers who make art. Among those who will be represented are: Ashley Bickerton, Esteban Boroquez, John McCracken, Jeffrey Vallance, Barry McGee, Russell Crotty, Sandow Birk, Margaret Kilgallen, Raymond Pettibon, Roger Brown, Peter Alexander, Craig Kauffman, Rick Griffin, Kevin Ancell, Ken Price, Billy Al Bengston, and John Van Hamersveld.

The connection between the arts and surfing goes back 3,000 years to Peru, where some of the world's first historians carved bas-reliefs of surfers. The intersection of surf culture and art today, however, extends far beyond art documenting life. Through more than 100 artworks, Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing explores this phenomenon through the work of a cross-disciplinary group of artists. Art today incorporates graffiti, advertisements and everyday items, and surfing is as much about clothes, attitude, and punk music, as it is about hitting the waves.

Although there have been exhibitions in the past that made the connection between contemporary art and surfing, none of them have been comprehensive, with many historical works and numerous artists - nor have they included the memorabilia associated with surfing. Works in the exhibition reference several centuries of art. Sandow Birk's recreations of nineteenth-century paintings such as Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze (American 1816-1868) are immediately recognizable as such, though the figures are now surfers oiled in vibrant hues and blunt forms. Kevin Ancell's hula girls recall the kitschy tiki dolls of the 50s, but they now wield M-16 assault rifles and grenades, symbols of American imperialism. Other artists illustrate the more physical impact of surf-related inventions by using materials like fiberglass - a synthetic that revolutionized the construction of utility boards. Other works suggest a more subtle correlation, such as the meditative tone of Robert Irwin's discs that mirror the transcendence surfers often feel while immersed in the ocean. (right: Ambrose Patterson, Surfriders, Honolulu, c.1915, wood block print, Collection of Randy Hild )

The last 40 years have seen an explosion of surf culture as a lifestyle or commodity. Surfer Magazine, Gidget, and the Beach Boys defined a healthy chunk of pre-hippie culture, and psychedelic posters of the late 60s were heavily influenced by surf-style designer John Van Hammersveld and Zap Comix veteran Rick Griffin. The following decades saw the surfer image plastered on billboards and glossy ads, so that a kid from Kansas who had never seen the beach could cop a surfer style with some Quiksilver shorts and Oakley shades.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 240-page full color book designed by internationally recognized graphics pioneer David Carson, co-published by Gingko Press, with essays by pop writer Deanne Stillman, and anthropologist Ben Finney. Tom Wolfe's memorable essay "The Pump House Gang" (1968) is also reprinted.

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