Kevin Ancell's "Media Miracle" is among the surf-inspired works at the Contemporary Museum.

The art
of the wave

Surfing rides the popular wave
into a museum exhibit on the sport

Waikiki beach boys find home at Duke's
Works memorialize surf communities

By Tim Ryan

Surfing is hip again, especially on Madison Avenue and in Hollywood, where wave riding and the beach culture are showing up regularly in commercials, films and television shows.

Once considered a rebellious, even antisocial activity, surfing has grabbed the attention of producers and directors who started surfing later in life, then brought productions to Hawaii like "Blue Crush," "The Big Bounce" and the television pilot "The Break," in part because they want to work in a place where they can surf.

So it isn't surprising that a prominent museum exhibit on the historical and cultural implications of surfing received high marks and record-breaking attendance when it opened last year at the Laguna Art Museum.

Now "Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing," opens Friday at the Contemporary Museum.

The TCM show is so expansive and multidisciplinary that it illuminates much of American culture -- especially that of the West Coast and Hawaii -- during the past 40 years, examining surfing's history through paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures from the late 1700s to the present.

Sandow Birk's "North Swell" echoes the famous Emanuel Leutze painting "Washington Crossing the Delaware."

Although TCM will have only half the exhibits -- about 200 -- that were displayed in the twice-as-large Laguna museum, the Contemporary has emptied its 5,200-square-foot space to fill all five exhibit halls with 35 surfboards, an electric surf vehicle, about 40 paintings, original posters, photographs, videos and sculpture, including a shrine to Duke Kahanamoku.

Among the more serious works are several from a 1960s school of art known as Finish Fetish or the L.A. Look. Works by Peter Alexander, Larry Bell, Craig Kaufman, John McCracken and others made use of new materials -- many of which were byproducts of the aerospace industry -- such as plastics, glass, fiberglass, resins and industrial pigments.

Some works are kitschy, like the surf cartoons by Rick Griffin and several Bay area 1960s psychedelic posters with surfing themes.

The museum will also sell a 240-page companion book featuring essays, along with reproductions of the artworks and artifacts. (Essayist Deanne Stillman writes a lively profile of the original Gidget, revealing that the first female surfer in the public consciousness was really a nice Jewish girl who grew up to marry a Yiddish scholar and college dean.)

James Jensen, TCM's chief curator, is betting that "Surf Culture," which runs through March 30, will draw a new breed of visitors -- surfers and other water sports enthusiasts -- beyond the typical arts audience.

"I was interested in ideas that are brought about by surfing," Jensen said. "The point of this show is locating those points where the worlds of art and surfing overlap."

Raymond Pettibon's "It is in His Waves," is one of a series of murals.

He also believes that surfing is the one thing most identified with Hawaii in public consciousness and imagination. As such, the Hawaii show differs from its Laguna counterpart, where many of the exhibits focused on Southern California surfing history. For the TCM showing, Jensen has added more Hawaii pieces with an emphasis on art.

THE CONNECTION between art and surfing in Hawaii extends back to 1778, when John Webber, the official artist on Capt. James Cook's third Pacific voyage, drew what is considered the first Western depiction of surfing: an image of a Hawaiian paddling on a board, amid a group of canoes, to greet Cook's ships in Kealakekua Bay. The first literary description of Hawaiian surfing was written about the same time by a naval officer on the voyage, Lt. James King, who described a surfing scene along the rocky Kona coast in the ship's log.

"Surfing and art today extend far beyond art documenting life," Jensen said. "Both have stretched to encompass each other and the areas of sport, popular culture and commercialism."

That shift illustrates one of the most pervasive themes in contemporary art: the blurring of boundaries. Just as art today often incorporates graffiti, advertisements and everyday items, surfing is as much about style, attitude and culture as it is about riding waves.

Several ideas are at play in this exhibit: the evolution of surfboard design during the last century (they got shorter and lighter); the economic impact of surf-inspired fashions (it continues to grow); the permutations of surf kitsch; and the many artists who have appropriated surfboard forms and materials, like polyurethane, which were themselves appropriated from the aerospace industry in the 1950s.

The variety of work in the "Surf Culture" show is reflected in these works: Wayne Levin's "Wave Riders Makapuu," above, a photograph shot from underwater, looking up through a wave.

WITH SO MUCH material floating around in our pop culture, Jensen knew it was a challenge to keep the show from lapsing into a big bunch of unorganized neat stuff. Jensen visited the Laguna exhibit last summer and realized he had to keep his ambitions modest. He backed away from ideas of tracing the entire history of surfing and its sociological context.

Instead, TCM's mission became an exploration of how surfing's image evolved and how surfing fashions, materials and ethos found their way into art and society at large.

"The subject is immense, more than I thought it was going to be," he said. "There were objects in Europe with collectors that were logistically and economically impossible for us to get. This exhibit is only the beginning of the surfing's story."

Many of the works tend toward the playful and deceptive. Sandow Birk's 1999 painting "North Swell (Washington Crossing the Delaware)" shows several wet-suited surfers arranged to echo the famous Emanuel Leutze painting of George Washington and company heroically paddling in a wild ocean. There are also ceramic "wave" sculptures by Kenneth Price; a video sculpture by Gary Hill; wall sculpture by Ashley Bickerton that encompasses an empty space where one might imagine oneself in the ocean, thinking of the perfect wave; and murals by Raymond Pettibon that engulf the viewer's vision in breaking swells.

The show's oldest piece is from Capt. Cook's days in the Hawaiian Islands: a sailor's 1784 etching of surfers, borrowed from private collector Dan Pincetich, of Sun Valley, Idaho.

The surfboards, which will be stacked horizontally along gallery walls, have been borrowed from private collectors in Hawaii and California and the Bishop Museum. The three surfboards on loan from the museum include Chief Abner Paki's 16-foot, 170-pound koa olo, circa 1830; a board owned by Princess Kaiulani; and a Tom Blake-style hollow board.

Other rare boards include a jet-black '60s vintage Greg Noll "Da Cat" model reportedly owned by surfing icon Micky "Da Cat" Dora; a high-tech carbon fiber board; and a Reynolds Yater surfboard on which artist Kevin Ancell inlaid the deck nose to tail with abalone mother-of-pearl.

"This isn't the end-all and be-all of exhibitions like this," Jensen said, "but I hope it opens people up. This may be the first time a lot of beach-lifestyle people will be introduced to a museum, and we want to give them a reason to come back."

'Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing'

On view: Friday through March 30
Place: The Contemporary Museum, 2411 Makiki Heights Drive
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays
Admission: $5 for adults, $3 for seniors and students, children free. Free admission the third Thursday of each month.
Call: 526-1322

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