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Sea Sick in Paradise: An Art Show That Connects Surfers and Artists

Prema Sampat with Melissa Ip and Ramdasha Biceem surfboard realness
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This article was produced in partnership with UCLA's Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS), an incubator for new research and collaboration on storytelling, communications, and media in the service of environmental conservation and equity.

The legend of Billy Al Bengston is like so many of the post-World War II era of American posterity: drenched in the sun, full of boyish fun and backed by jazz. He was a Ferus Gallery regular, a champion motorcycle racer and an original Malibu surfer. He had long toes, made for walking the nose. Breaking rules and living free, he is a reminder that the popular images of the artist and the surfer aren’t that far apart. Both live outside the strictures of mainstream, two-car-garage society. Both are loners, yet part of tight-knit communities. Both dress funny and sometimes eat peyote.

Billy Al Bengston Honolulu Watercolor September 1994 15x12 watercolor on paper | Courtesy of the artist
Billy Al Bengston Honolulu Watercolor September 1994 15x12 watercolor on paper | Courtesy of the artist

On a surf trip to Baja in the 1950s, Bengston didn’t shave for months, and when he came back a buddy told him he looked like jazz musician Louis “Moondog” Hardin. The nickname Moondoggie stuck, and Bengston became the loose basis for the love interest in Frederick Kohner’s 1957 novel, Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas. By the time the Gidget movie starring Sandra Dee came out two years later, Malibu was covered in surfers.

With a name derived from the Chumash word for “the surf sounds loudly,” Malibu has been an epicenter of board-riding culture for more than six decades, and it’s a fitting place for a new show of surf-related art put together by the DEPART Foundation. Presented in a pop-up space at Malibu Village, “Sea Sick in Paradise” is a sprawling exhibition of 46 creators, some better known as artists, others as surfers, but all with an appreciation for the ocean. The contributors range from old-timers like Bengston to emerging artists like Cristine Blanco, from category-defying creatives like Matthew Lutz-Kinoy to filmmakers like George Trimm. Diversity was a guiding principle for curator Amy Yao.

“Surfing and art shows are too often just a bunch of white guys,” she said. “I'm trying my best to balance it out.”

One wall is given over entirely to Jeff Ho, founder of the Zephyr Surf Team and Zephyr Skate Team, aka the Z-Boys. Ho covered his wall with a black and white mural proclaiming “locals only.” Around the corner are photos of the surfer and board maker in action. In one he shapes. In another he shreds.

An artist and surfer herself, Yao learned a lot about SoCal boarding history while putting together the show. That’s when she discovered the Moondoggie connection with Bengston, and that’s how she learned just what a character renowned surfboard shaper and artist Peter Schroff was.

"Jeff Ho's friend told me a story about going down to Newport Beach in the '80s, when Schroff had a surf shop, but for Schroff the store was kind of a conceptual art piece,” she said. “This time the whole entire store was painted black, and there were only four surfboards on the racks. There was basically nothing for sale."

Known for adversarial antics, including a line of anti-surf wear, Schroff was at Cal Arts the same time as Mike Kelley, along with famed teachers Michael Asher and John Baldessari. He has a surfboard in the show that is basically unrideable. It’s lime-green and shaped like a giant spermatozoon.

When gathering materials from Brown Girl Surf, an Oakland-based organization devoted to encouraging diversity and sustainability in surfing culture, Yao discovered the work of Cristine Blanco, whose watercolor “Sharks is a subtle highlight of the show. In the painting, three wetsuit-clad women stare out at the ocean with happy determination, pastel pinks and purples brimming with anticipation.

Sharks May 2017 | Cristine Blanco
Sharks May 2017 | Cristine Blanco

While warming to diversity on many fronts, surf culture is still slow in its acceptance of transgendered people, as is clear from the comments section of any surfing publication that writes about Westerly Windina, née Peter Drouyn. A champion surfer in the early ‘70s, Drouyn was an iconoclast, a competitor known for unreal style in the water and outrageous stunts on the land. In 2008, after hormone replacement therapy, Drouyn announced that he was now she.

Surf journalist Jamie Brisick wrote a book about Windina, “Becoming Westerly,” and produced a documentary of the same name, and some of his photos are included in the show. The pictures are candid and relaxed, with the feeling of a happy woman being photographed by a friend.

Westerly Shows Peter in Cleo | Jamie Brisick
Westerly Shows Peter in Cleo | Jamie Brisick

At the press preview for the show, Jon Christensen, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies, read from William Finnegan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, “Barbarian Days”:

I remember a winter storm when I was in high school that flooded the lagoon at Malibu and changed the shape of the famous point. I simply could not accept the fact that Malibu was now a different wave. It was one thing for the Army Corps of Engineers to throw up a jetty at some beachbreak or harbor mouth and erase a surfable wave or create a new one. Malibu, I believed, was eternal. It was a fixed point in my universe.

The wave of Finnegan’s childhood eventually returned as the sand shifted back into place, but Malibu is now threatened by a more apocalyptic possibility. 

“The coastal squeeze coming with climate change, if we continue with business as usual, could eliminate a third to two thirds of our beaches in California,” said Christensen. "The coast of our memories will be underwater unless we all act.”

Fixing global calamity is a bit much to ask of an art show, but some pieces in “Sea Sick in Paradise” do address climate change, most notably the works of Peter Fend. His “Hawaii Energy Independenceresembles a middle schooler’s science fair backboard, and its primary aesthetic is information.

Margaret Kilgallen Untitled acrylic on wood panel 312x12 inches
Margaret Kilgallen Untitled acrylic on wood panel 312x12 inches

Also in the show are wood panels painted by San Francisco artist Margaret Kilgallen; surfboards painted by her widower, Barry McGee; cloth samples from Hoffman Fabrics, which decked out generations of surfers in bright colors; a photograph of an intentionally damaged film strip by Jennifer West; and clips from a weirdo surf flick directed by George Trimm. Taken together, the show represents the variety of perspectives that lead people to lay down flat on a chunk of foam and paddle away from dry land.

Mollusk | George Trimm
Mollusk | George Trimm

Like artists, surfers remove themselves from the dominant culture, if only temporarily, to float among the like-minded and look back at the world with new eyes. “Sea Sick in Paradise” is a golden opportunity for paddlers and landlubbers alike to behold what those eyes have seen.

Top Image: Prema Sampat with Melissa Ip and Ramdasha Biceem "Surfboard Realness"

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