Much like when they are sitting for a job interview, surfers have often had a hard time being taken seriously in the art world. “When you say you’re a surfer, you’re immediately sort of dismissed the same way as an artist is today when you say you’re a DJ,” says Tim Nye, proprietor of Nyehaus Gallery. “Back in the '60s when minimalism was of the moment, the aesthetic certainly had a chapter in Los Angeles, but they didn’t wrap this didactic verbiage to sort of spoon feed the critics. They didn’t get the sort of attention the people like [Donald] Judd, who was articulate about writing about his work, did. I think people hear the word 'surfer' and there is a real dismissal of the work having real merit.”
SWELL, a show co-curated by Nye and Jacqueline Miro, attempts to balance that. A tripartite exhibition now on display at Nyehaus, Friedrich Petzel, and Metro Pictures galleries, brings together work by “Artists who surf and surfers who make art.”
Click here to VIEW OUR GALLERY of Swell's California surf art
In the last decade, surfing has gone more bicoastal than ever before, with breaks like Rockaway Beach and Ditch Plains in Montauk drawing more and more crowds to the water near New York. Whereas it was once as odd to see a surfboard in Manhattan as a pair of skis in Hawaii, on any given weekend there are bound to be old Range Rovers and new Priuses, boards strapped to the roof, heading for the sand. (Among the stylish set in Japan, where the thirst for all things Americana seems unquenchable, surfboards atop the car are de rigueur, even if actually using them isn’t.)
Surfing and the culture around it have had a firm foothold in the American—and now global—consciousness, and there is no denying the sensual appeal of surfing: the sun, the water, the sand, the bodies, the air. As the release for the show puts it, “The surfer is dealing with the most basic elements of all, it’s the individual dealing with the power of the ocean, lunar pulls, tidal ebbs and flows; surfers are mystics, inward looking, engaged in a neurological excursion into bliss, sliding over the water and leaving no trace of their presence.” Some of this appeal finds its way into the pieces in Swell.
Several of the pieces make use of the singular light that characterizes the days and evenings of Los Angeles. Ed Ruscha, in particular, seems to know this light like his own mind. One piece of his renders a sky of waning day, black lines suggesting telephone wires in the foreground, faint white letters reading “Siren May Sound” held in vivid suspension behind them—the upward view from the beach parking lot.
However, from the Pump House Gang to Dogtown, the surfing life has always had a more hard-edged rebellion, even a patina of violence, that doesn’t square with the notion of laid-back surf culture, many of the pieces in Swell display a counterculturalism that is not always blond and smiling.
Surfing is, after all, a Cold War sport. In the years following World War II, Southern California was a heavily militarized stretch of paradise, with numerous bases—from Port Hueneme near Ventura to Camp Pendleton north of San Diego—and their attendant defense-industry installations. The anxiety of the time was heavy and much of the art in Swell reflects the era. One photo, by Jimmy Ganzer, the founder of Jimmy Z surf clothing, juxtaposes the carefree image of a surfer in his classic Woody station wagon, broad-beamed smile, and boards sticking out the back. Above him, a still from the footage of the H-Bomb test at Bikini Atoll. Another piece, a print, shows a surfboard emblazoned with a militaristic “U.S.A.,” a beach bomber ready for action.
“Surfing was really born after WWII and Korean Wars,” says Nye, “and you have those spectacular scenes in Apocalypse Now. It’s a good escape, for removing yourself from the horrors of war and politics.” There is also the shifting ecology of Southern California, the coastal desert’s loss of innocence as it bloomed green with orange trees and lawns, and was paved over at the same time. (Accordingly, automotive imagery, which is as much a part of surf culture as the browned, lithe bodies of bikini-clad women, is well represented in Swell.)
Phillip Dvorak, whose carnal drawings are part of Swell, grew up in Inglewood, home of Southern California’s original bleached ideals, the Beach Boys. He later moved further south. “When I lived in San Diego, my studio used to be on this cliff, and I could wait for them to get just right,” he said, “but we used to go down and surf Tijuana Slews. It was a great wave, but there was all this sewer runoff. You had to make sure you didn’t swallow any water.”
At the opening of Swell, a crowd of graying surfers in loose-fitting linen shirts, and salt-crusted young men in shop-worn Vans and blue oxford shirts, mixed with the more usual Chelsea crowd of collectors arriving in chauffeured black cars.
One of the artists in the show, Lindsey Nobel, moved west a year and a half ago, and has the color and posture of someone who had relaxed significantly in that time. She extolled the virtues of coastal life. “I went from New York to Dog Beach in Malibu, and a house on stilts,” she said. “I never thought I’d live that close to the ocean, like, in it. You end up with dolphins in your backyard instead of Port Authority buses. You sleep so well, it’s like psssssh, psssssh…,” imitating the sound of ebb-flowing surf.
“It masks the traffic,” a companion of hers added helpfully.
There is an ocean, and it’s next to a highway.
With Eastern eyes, it is often hard to look West and see anything but either a vast array of sun-baked dystrophies or an idealized coast of dreams. Swell understands it is something more complicated and in between, and that surfing and the art that comes out of it have something to say to that. California is the bookend of the American experiment, the littoral endgame that tends to manifest all of our best and worst aspects. As the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti put it, “Southern California, where the American Dream came too true.” In the face of such teleological heft, there is often little to do but grab your board and head for the beach.
Surfing is a way to commune with nature, sure, but it is also a way to tell the landlocked bummers to kiss your ass, especially riding a wave frontside, back to the East.
Raised in Southern California, but ejected from there in his late teens, Brian Thomas Gallagher lives and writes in New York.