Until recently, artist Ed Templeton hadn't bought clothes in 20 years. The eternally sponsored skateboard legend and perhaps the one personally responsible for the trucker hat craze in the '90s, expertly procured a new suit for his last art opening at Roberts & Tilton Gallery in Los Angeles. It was yet another milestone for Templeton, as "Synthetic Suburbia" was the first gallery show to exclusively feature just his new paintings. The exhibit, a departure from his usual multimedia extravaganza was purposefully stripped down, and exemplified Templeton's use of super flat, vibrant color to observe the underbelly of a suburban utopian dream. His baggy-eyed, Southern Californian subjects lurk, smoke, pee and water their sidewalks, completely indifferent to their audience and their creator.
"Looking back, it's only been within the last, I would say, 10 years that I thought I was any good," muses Templeton on a recent visit to his home and studio in Huntington Beach. "My first pro skateboard ad of the '90s was 'Buy Ed Templeton's board, the one with the crappy graphics.' I was holding up what I had just made, next to these John Lucero boards that were polished and nice with a whole theme and good color. I was doing line drawing types of things. So I was very conscious I wasn't good. But I really wanted to do it. 'If I'm going to be a pro, I'm going to do it myself, including my own graphics.'"
Practicing new tricks on Friday nights at Huntington Beach High with Jason Lee and Mike Vallely, two other pro-skateboarding notables, Templeton became one of the best street skaters ever to ride rails. After going pro, he started Toy Machine Blood Sucking Skateboard Company on a hand shake deal in 1993. At 20 years old, he was savvy enough to base his business model on Ian MacKaye's Dischord Records, ideally mixing business with something he loves. This straight-edge, do-it-yourself aesthetic would also find its way into Templeton's career as an artist, and although he had been dabbling in painting since 1990, he wasn't entirely convinced it would go anywhere. He simply put himself to the test as all the skaters he admired, like Mark Gonzales, Chris Miller and Neil Blender, did their own board graphics. "I think creative people find skateboarding," offers Templeton, when asked why so many skaters are also artists. "I don't think skateboarding breeds creativity, it's the other way around."
Toy Machine, now one of the skate industries' top rated teams and brands, retains an art house, indie vibe, thanks to Templeton's keen leadership. Yet, Templeton prefers to keep his skate graphics very separate from his fine art photography, painting, drawing or sculpture. None of Toy Machine's signature characters: transistor sects, turtle boys or monsters find their way into his internationally sought after-gallery work, some of which is now in permanent museum collections in Italy, Germany and France.
It's fair to determine that Templeton's competitive nature helps fuel his talent. He has worked just as hard to be an artist as he did a skateboarder. His first solo show was in 1994 at Alleged, then a 300-square-foot gallery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Much to curator Aaron Rose's amazement, Templeton rolled up from California in a box truck packed with work. The paintings, hung floor to ceiling, were essentially hyper-sexualized black marker drawings, filled in with paint. Templeton's Egon Schiele references were immediately recognizable. On a whim, he covered a door with Polaroid photos of his penis because he thought it'd be funny. Art patrons immediately dismissed him. The culturally conservative skateboard community was confused.
However, those Polaroids, perhaps meant to be an obnoxious joke, started something serious. Not discouraged by the poor reception of his show, Templeton began taking candid, sometimes intrusive photos of his wife Deanna, strangers and teammates on skate competition tours. His next show with Alleged, in 1999, was a large collection of voyeuristic photographs of kids and the accompanying book, "Teenage Smokers," that caught the attention of art critics and garnered a very different reaction from his first paintings. This body of work won him Milan's "Search for Art" Prize, (2000), worth $50,000, with which he bought his house. The series was acquired by the Orange County Museum of Art and the book, if found today, goes for a nice chunk of change. Since, Templeton has proven that he clearly has an extraordinary eye for composition, and is valiantly carrying on the tradition of contemporary art photography in the vein of Nan Goldin, Garry Winogrand and even Walker Evans. However, like his predecessors, his subject matter is extremely raw and personal; at times X-rated, violent and emotionally draining.
"I'm not a creep," offers Templeton, by all accounts, a pretty mild mannered, overtly kind man. "Was Cartier Bresson a creep? It's more about capturing a moment. Deanna trusts me that I'm not going to put anything out there without a reason, or something that's exploitative. Some of that stuff I don't show anymore. Sometimes people will get offended and then it will become about principle. But they have to realize the sex photos aren't indicative of the whole body of work, and shouldn't be taken as such."
His latest book of photos, "Wayward Cognitions," already sold out in first edition, is a resplendent triumph. It's a focused collection of carefully edited black and white images, where some of the themes are repeated, but the selection is his most mature and ethereal to date. Soon, an upcoming book, "Adventures In The Nearby Far Away," of Templeton's images of Catalina Island will be published by Editions Bessard in Paris. The book is peppered with sweet personal remembrances of a favorite family vacation spot, and his late grandparents looking glamorous on the beach. There is nothing traditional about its exquisite accordion style layout, still there is a timeless beauty to the images and the thought behind them. If you look closely, all the landscape horizon lines match.
Templeton shoots film exclusively for his art projects, but is prolific with an iPhone for his Instagram account, curated like a digital fanzine. He takes photos everyday during his daily walks along the pier and fills his popular feed with those images of people and pelicans. Sometimes the posts tout his extensive photo book library and promote his favorite vegan ice cream. His visual observations are sometimes wry, sometimes sweet, and the captions when they're added, worth reading.
"I was the last person to jump on the social media bandwagon," explains Templeton. "I didn't even have a cell phone for ages. It was the maps that hooked me. I was the old school guy carrying around the Thomas Guide, while everyone else was texting and using GPS. But once I realized the power it had in getting a message across, I had fun making up different hashtags for things."
The digital age also makes way for a new generation of fans, who may soon only know Templeton for his art. He shattered his leg during a skateboarding demo on November 3, 2012, and it put his riding days on perhaps permanent hiatus. While he has a lot of hardware added to his many battle scars, counting two plates and 21 screws, (gruesomely documented as #edscouchadventure), he remains active in the day to day operation of Toy Machine, still overseeing the marketing initiatives and scouting riders for the team. We can look forward to even more painting, drawing and self-published zines. Templeton continues to travel extensively, planning a trip to Paris Photo this fall and frequently makes trips to L.A. to see shows and support friends. Yet, he has no plans to uproot from the OC any time soon.
"Deanna and I have never thought we would live in one place forever," says Templeton. "I really love Copenhagen. I said that to someone there and (they) said, 'wait, you live in SoCal? I'd give my left arm to live there. You're here the two weeks of the year it's actually sunny. What are you thinking?'"
"I used to hate Huntington Beach," he continues, "when I was younger, I thought HB sucked hard. But I traveled the world, and found there's no other place like it. It's so weird, it's actually paradise."
"Common Side Effects," an Ed Templeton retrospective runs Sept. 13 to Nov. 7, at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St, Huntington Beach, CA 92648. Also on view: a curated selection by local photographers, Billy Soncho Williams, Deanna Templeton, Nolan Hall, Devin Briggs and Grant Hatfield.