July 28, 2002

ART/ARCHITECTURE; Catching a Cultural Wave (Just Don't Try to Define It)


SURFING is such a colorful part of American culture that life wouldn't be the same without it. Just consider what's happening this summer: on the big screen, an anarchic alien and his little Hawaiian gal pal catch a wave or two in Disney's ''Lilo and Stitch.'' In ''Blue Crush,'' a romantic drama scheduled for release in August, female surfers try to conquer Oahu's infamous Banzai Pipeline.

Sheryl Crow, in the video for her new song ''Soak Up the Sun,'' finds the surfer girl in her and hangs 10. In a commercial for the Toyota Corolla, the car rides ludicrously atop a monstrous longboard. And a Powerade commercial follows a surfer on a horrendously large swell at Mavericks, a Northern California surf break.

How did the ancient Hawaiian pursuit of he'nalu, or wave sliding, become an all-American pastime? Is there such a thing as surf culture? And if so, how has it affected pop culture and the arts? These are some of the questions addressed by ''Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing,'' an exhibition that opens here today at the Laguna Art Museum.

The exhibition's curators, Craig Stecyk and Bolton Colburn, are longtime, avid surfers, yet even they are not quite sure what surfing is -- never mind trying to define its culture. Mr. Stecyk, a photographer, filmmaker and journalist, writes in the exhibition catalog: ''What is surfing? An aesthetic act? A performance art that requires no audience? Painted arcs done without a brush on an ever-changing canvas?''

These questions might sound a bit windy, but Mr. Colburn, the museum's director and, not incidentally, the 1977 United States surfing champion, said that trying to define surf culture has been the most difficult job he has had in a career devoted to art. Laguna Beach, he said, is the center for surfing in Southern California and any art and commerce connected to surfing.

''Most of the creative people who deal with surfing live around here,'' he said. ''They feel really emotional about the material and have a stake in that history. It's been a challenge to negotiate the waters with the various people who feel they should be included, or not included, for that matter.''

David Carson, the designer of the exhibition catalog and former art director of Surfer, Beach Culture and RayGun magazines, said: ''Bolton and I were joking about how we're not going to show up at the opener. I think it might have made the book better had it been called 'A History of Surf Culture' rather than 'The History.' ''

The exhibit is ambitious, covering the history of surfing -- in paintings, posters, photographs, film and artifacts -- from ancient Peru and Polynesia to the 21st century. It features artists who surf and surfers who paint, pop icons like Gidget and serious works that struggle with the meaning of American colonialism.

It is organized as a timeline. The museum has ancient Peruvian cave reliefs showing figures riding the waves on boards made from bound reeds. From the 19th century it has rare 200-pound surfboards, carved from koa trees. The boards are displayed alongside a spectacular 1784 etching by a crewman that documents Captain Cook's third and last trip to Hawaii, showing Hawaiians paddling out to greet him on surfboards and in canoes. Cook's visits spelled the beginning of the end for Hawaiians, who in the next hundred years were decimated by disease and a cruel plantation labor system. Surfing was also all but wiped out, partly because missionaries frowned on such a heathen activity.

Surfing did not reach America until the early 1900's, when Hawaii began attracting tourists. They brought home souvenirs -- carved ukuleles, Hawaiian shirts -- decorated with surf scenes. These tchotchkes, several of which are on display, helped spark American interest in surfing, especially on the coasts.

Surfing also had an unofficial ambassador, Duke Kahanamoku, a native Hawaiian famous for winning a gold medal in swimming in the 1912 Olympics. Handsome and articulate, he dedicated his life to spreading the gospel of he'nalu, giving exhibitions on the West and East coasts. The museum displays several of his 200-pound koa surfboards, some of the first seen in the United States, as well as photographs of his life.

By this time, surfing had also infiltrated the fine arts. In ''Victoria Beach'' (1920), the California impressionist Clarence Hinkle painted a panoramic view of Laguna's famous coastline, with several surfboards propped in the sand.

By the late 1940's, California had a small cadre of dedicated surfers. One of them was Bud Browne, who began filming surfers in Hawaii with a Bell & Howell 16-millimeter movie camera. In 1956, he introduced ''The Big Surf,'' a budget newsreel, at California civic centers and high school auditoriums. Mainland surfers were stunned by the thunderous but perfect waves on Oahu's North Shore and began a great migration to the islands.

Surfing, however, did not become outsized until 16-year-old Kathy Kohner spent a summer on the beach in Malibu. Her father, Frederick, turned her daily diary into a novella called ''Gidget,'' which was turned into a film in 1959 by Universal. Though generally ignored by surfers, ''Gidget'' became a phenomenon that spawned ''Beach Blanket Bingo'' and other knockoffs. The museum has pictures of Kathy Kohner and the actresses who played her, as well as one of her surfboards.

''Gidget,'' ''Beach Blanket Bingo'' and the Beach Boys popularized surfing, but they were scorned by purists. For the surfers, the iconic image was a pop-art silkscreened poster by John Van Hamersveld, of a surfer facing a bright sunset. The poster, a promotion for the Bruce Brown film ''The Endless Summer,'' which was a hit with surfers and landlubbers, became an enduring image.

''We hated the beach party films, the Beach Boys and all that,'' said John Severson, a painter and photographer who founded Surfer magazine in 1960. ''That stuff came on the radio and -- whap! -- off it went. It gave so many people a distorted view of what surf culture was. But it also brought so many people into surfing, that it osmosed into surfing. Some of that stuff can't help but stick.''

INDEED, as surfing's popularity grew, a few of the surfer-artists began making art for mass consumption. Rick Griffin began as a cartoonist at Surfer magazine in the early 60's. Heavily influenced by Mad Magazine, he created ''Murphy,'' the first comic strip devoted to surfing culture.

As the decade went on, Murphy, who started as a typical blond California surfer, morphed into a psychedelic one and showed up in the underground Zap Comix. Griffin also painted a poster for ''The Pow-Wow: a Gathering of the Tribes for a Human Be-In,'' which occurred in 1967, at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary attended the gathering; the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane performed. Griffin's work was noticed, and soon he was creating posters and album covers for bands and performers like the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, the Who and Van Morrison. (Griffin died in a car accident in 1991.)

The civil rights movement and the Vietnam War made the quest for the perfect wave seem increasingly irrelevant. Yet surfers continued to spread across the globe, leaving their mark on remote beaches and atolls from the Pacific to the Caribbean. And the mystique of surfing never disappeared. Its imagery was co-opted by companies seeking to market clothes, cigarettes, alcohol or anything else that needed a shot of healthy suntanned rebellion. (Indeed, the museum's exhibition was partially financed by Quiksilver, which manufactures surf clothing and accessories.)

Surfing had become a symbol of American culture, and to some, a symbol of cultural imperialism. In a famous scene from the film ''Apocalypse Now,'' a Vietnamese village is strafed as a soldier surfs off of its beach. The museum features an actual board used in the film.

Is surfing really a tool of cultural imperialists? Or a way of deconstructing the culture at large? Maybe, but even Gordon McClelland, an avid collector of surfing art who contributed many of the Laguna exhibition's pieces, said that surfing's most alluring aspect is also its most elusive.

''Surfing is this pure thing,'' he said. ''You take this board, you paddle out and ride the waves. All the things in this show, all this external stuff is like the road map that tells you about surfing, but none of it is surfing. It cracks me up because I have these mounds of stuff. But surfing; you can't bottle it, you can't package it, and it's not about the money, because you can't sell what it really is. What it really is is all the beautiful things that happen to you when you're riding a wave.''

Surf Culture:
The Art History of Surfing Laguna Art Museum,
307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, Calif.
Today through Oct. 6.

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