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.