A couple of Saturdays back, the city of Santa Barbara closed a block of De La Guerra Street and let skateboard culture have a field day, in broad daylight, with its blessing.
What was wrong with this picture? Adrenaline-charging, post-punk music rang through the air as skateboarders became projectiles on the asphalt, and daredevils careened up and down a half-pipe.
As it turned out, this was not merely a token display of the skating life but an extension of a grander art project in the neighborhood. Just up the stairs of Paseo Nuevo mall, the Contemporary Arts Forum has given its gallery space to this alternative lifestyle-avocation.
What the visitor finds in the show called "Skatelore Expo: California Skate(boarding) Index to Concepts, Forms, Life" may be either a revelation--an insight into a thriving, thrashing "other" culture--or a confirmation, depending on one's awareness of the skateboarding life.
Yes, the arts forum folks have turned over keys to the asylum to the inmates of a special cultural world.
Here we find art of the post-guerrilla comix variety, elaborate designs on skateboard decks, artwork from the specialty skateboard 'zines, and other indications of a culture with its own vocabulary of references and archetypes.
Skateboarding culture relates to surfing, that other kinetic subculture in California, but differs in several critical ways.
On a fundamental level, skateboarding is an urban-suburban phenomenon dealing with hard surfaces of asphalt and concrete. It's literally a harder-edged sport, versus the softer naturalism of surfing in which water, waves and weather are determining factors.
Skateboarders mainly contend with the force of gravity and the laws of extreme motion.
Thrasher culture, consequently, has a more wry and harsh spin, but stops short of the anarchism sometimes projected onto it. It is, after all, a rigorous sport, requiring concentration and equilibrium.
A sign outside the gallery, a familiar warning reading "Skateboarding is not permitted," points to an inherent irony in this show.
Even here, skateboarders are sometimes unjustly viewed skeptically, as socially misfit marauders on tiny wheels. The Santa Barbara City Council recently approved a skateboard park, which thrills skateboarders as well as those who wish to keep them in a defined area.
A lack of love from the public notwithstanding, skateboarding has dug deep roots in California, and this region in particular.
The show is partly funded by Ventura's Skate Street, as well as the well-known Santa Barbara-based skateboard company Powell/Skate One (formerly Powell/Peralta), which has given gainful employment to a few of the artists showing here.
V. Courtland Johnson is one of the Powell-ites whose portraits of skateboarders show the fanatical detail and mythic presentation: Riders appear as heroic icons, nimbly zooming along a self-defined societal fringe. Another Powell-connected artist, Jerry Mahoney, epitomizes the irreverent perspective skateboarders have toward mainstream culture: He shows a cartoony image of Disney's Seven Dwarfs, looking like roustabouts in a police lineup.
The aesthetics here extend beyond pretty pictures or idle designs. San Francisco-based artist Barry McGee's trademarked faces have a dopey, half-awake or half-dead expression, while Kevin Ancell shows deck art based on one of Max Beckmann's gnarly paintings of decadence as an allegory for the human condition.
In the middle of the gallery, Chris Johanson has installed his deliberately scrappy tableau, a little cityscape painted with loose graffiti and nihilistic axioms. As happens with other obsessive lifestyles, the tool becomes a shrine, as exemplified by Jim Knight's chair made from skateboard decks.
Kenneth C. Jones Jr., a co-founder of Thrasher magazine, shows panels from his comic strips in a vividly weird visual style that echoes the underground comix movement, but minus the sociopolitical justification. Skateboarding culture is a new counterculture, without self-deluding idealism attached. Then there are the boards themselves, lining the gallery walls and painted with all manner of visual effects. Ed Templeton's boards boast a wonderfully loopy humor, with what-me-worry characters self-consciously tucked into the design schemes. A leaner, post-Warholian Pop Art detachment informs the work of Demetrie Tyler.
Through it all, "Skatelore Expo" manages to offer a revealing window on this realm, even as it preserves its cultural sense of self. One of the peripheral virtues of this exhibition is that it reaches into the community and cuts across that invisible barrier between the public and the forbidden zone of "contemporary art." And it does so without compromising integrity or playing to lowest common denominators.
Everybody is welcome. Just leave the skateboards at home.
"Skatelore Expo: California Skate(boarding)