The word “swell” can refer to a ridge-shaped formation that moves across the surface of a liquid or, as a slang adjective, indicate that something (or someone) is remarkably fine. Both meanings were applicable to the three-venue exhibition “Swell” curated by dealer-collector Tim Nye and Jacqueline Miro, an architect and surfing enthusiast. This joint venture presented the works of over 70 artists, drawn from the period 1950-2010. The survey as a whole was promoted as a fun summer event meant to demonstrate how surf culture’s sun-baked idylls and timeless vision of riding the perfect wave have contributed to the creation of serious art.
Therefore the show was full of, but not limited to, painted images of sunsets, water and waves; surfing cartoons from the late ’60s by Robert Williams, Jim Evans and R. Crumb; photographs of the L.A. art scene and beach culture in the 1960s; and numerous surfboards designed by artists such as Charles Arnoldi, Barry McGee and Billy Al Bengston, along with others crafted by well-known surfers. Photographs by Roe Ethridge and Catherine Opie offered a glimpse of surfer action, while Ashley Bickerton’s painting Jack Blaylock (2001) focuses on the face of an aging, burnt-out beach veteran. Also alluding to the darker side of the sport, Robert Longo’s drawings of a midwater mushroom cloud (which brings to mind the surfing scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now) and a gigantic wave (which suggests a tsunami of the sort that has struck more than one surfer paradise) complemented black-and-white photographs by Bud Browne and Craig Stecyk that picture the solitude and physical risks of surfing.
Yet “Swell” far exceeded its surfer theme. Nye and Miro managed to combine examples from Light and Space (Larry Bell, Helen Pashgian), Finish Fetish (Dewain Valentine, Peter Alexander, Craig Kauffman, Laddie John Dill), Funk and Assemblage (Wallace Berman, Llyn Foulkes) and early Pop art (Tony Berlant, Joe Goode, Ken Price, Ed Ruscha) with works by younger artists from both coasts such as Bill Komoski, Fred Tomaselli, Raymond Pettibon, Blake Rayne, Thaddeus Strode and Andy Moses. West Coast minimalist forms and pop imagery—hot rods, bikini-clad women and waves straight out of the classic 1966 documentary The Endless Summer (present in the form of a silkscreen of a poster for the film)—were confronted with a rougher, less utopian view of the world in works by Beat Generation artists like George Herms and Bruce Conner.
This creative mélange dissolved the cliché of stylistic and esthetic differences often used to separate—and conceptually ghettoize—West and East Coast art. Because the curators discarded this outworn trope, viewers were able not only to see works by important West Coast artists, who exhibit in New York all too infrequently, but also to connect the art historical dots in fresh and provocative ways.
Photo: View of the exhibition “Swell,” 2010; at Metro Pictures.