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.
First developed in the late 1940s by mathematician Bob Simmons, surfing rode out of the Cold War as a cavalier contrast, raising the specter of apocalypse as a sport and as a lifestyle. Like Abstract Expressionism, surf culture found importance in a very masculine type of refined random movement, and early on tapped into themes that would occupy artists for decades: returning artists from the studio to the agony and ecstasy of the elements; and turning that into an art experience, and a lifestyle. Co-curators Tim Nye and Jacqueline Miró present “SWELL” as a thorough survey of over 90 artists spread over three galleries—Nyehaus, Metro Pictures and Friedrich Petzel.
Nyehaus features a significant amount of photo documentation from as far back as the early 1950s, and attests to the extreme physical challenge of surfing and the apocalyptic atmosphere that then permeated Southern California. Bud Browne’s untitled black-and-white photographs made around 1968 portray surfers either falling in front of waves or crouched over, attempting to ride out a pipeline before submerging under a fast-descending crest. Craig Stecyk’s Pop Wave (1974), taken nearly a decade later, portrays a high swell rolling tearing away at a tall, tattered dock. To today’s viewer, it embodies both the seductive danger and the nascent environmentalism of surfing. Rendered much later, Raymond Pettibon’s “No Title” drawing series (1987–1997) use strokes of gray, blue and red to render as cartoons sweeping, larger-than-life waves falling dramatically into an abyss. The sublime has snuck away here.
The large-scale sculptures at Metro Pictures involve artists foraging for and combining materials from beaches in Southern California, simultaneously documenting and spitualizing the environment. Herms’ The Scientific American (1973) comprises a framed bone fragment, which partially cover an issue of the titular magazine, itself attached to a surface of unfinished wood and burnt-out birthday candles. The composition saddles myths of streamlined modernity with physical bulk and banal ritual. Other artists from the historic Ferus Gallery—Bruce Conner, Llyn Foulkes, Ed Moses—also used collage techniques to reflect the chaos and ephemerality of contemporary media. At the same time, artists like Herbie Fletcher, Peter Alexander, Jimmy Ganzer and Michael Greene decorated surfboard, creating both monuments and functional objects. These are also on view.
On the second floor of Metro Pictures, John McCracken’s neon-yellow fiberglass cube, Galaxy (1998) is a surf-y but slick riff on Minimalism. Using the bright and bombastic coloring of a board, McCracken underscores the peacock-like element of the surfboard, and the relationship of the artwork to its artist. Friedrich Petzel Gallery features an array of more recent contemporary art objects that pay homage to surf art and its enduring themes. Ashley Bickerton’s sculpture, The Edge of Things—S. Pacific (1993), features a tiny house resting atop a thin, curved tower of coral. Peter Alexander’s photograph, Gas (ML) (2006), depicts a stunning nightscape of Los Angeles, connecting the hilltop perspective, with all its temporary feelings of omnipotence, with that of a surfer’s when standing upon a high wave.