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Seriously, Dude

Trying to compete with the allure of the beach, a Laguna museum mounts a show on the art of surf culture


Every year around this time, in between their usual encounters with truth, beauty, scholarship and donor-cultivation, the museum directors of North America can be seen facing another humbling challenge: How can their indoor spaces compete with the great outdoors on a sunny summer day?

The answer this year, if you're the Laguna Art Museum, is to paddle with the prevailing tide. That is, to mount a show on the cultural implications of surfing. Beginning today, the museum is doing just that and betting heavily that it will draw visitors far beyond its usual audience.

During the run of "Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing," through Oct. 6, the Laguna museum will stay open seven days a week instead of six, will operate from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. instead of 11 to 5, and will bump its adult admission fee from $5 to $7.

If all goes as planned, the museum will match its previous record attendance for a single show, which is about 6,000 paid admissions (or 12,000 visitors, if museum members and school groups are included). On the other hand, if prospective visitors decide they would rather admire the genuine article--the surf itself, which foams and laps about 300 feet from the museum door--the curators are doomed.

Either way, the record will show that this was the summer that museum director Bolton Colburn and his team took a plunge. Drawing on major sponsorship from surfwear manufacturer Quiksilver, the small museum is emptying its 10,000-square-foot space, then filling it with 90 surfboards, two automobiles, two dozen oversized and weapon-bearing hula-dancer dolls, about 40 paintings, and more than 150 photographs and other objects. The museum is also publishing a 240-page companion book featuring essays along with reproductions of artworks and artifacts.

"We're interested in ideas that are brought about by surfing and notions that arise in someone's head when they see someone surfing," Colburn said recently, as boxed and swaddled art and artifacts accumulated in the museum's closed galleries. The crux of the show, Colburn said, is locating those points where the worlds of art and surfing overlap.

Among the ideas in play: the evolution of surfboard design during the last century (they got shorter and lighter); the economic impact of surf-inspired fashions (growing); the permutations of surf kitsch (myriad); and the many artists who have appropriated surfboard forms and materials (like polyurethane), which were themselves appropriated from the aerospace industry in the 1950s.

If it's beginning to sound like the museum is burying this sunny subject in sober scholarship, consider the opening words of the companion essay contributed by University of Hawaii anthropology professor Ben Finney:

"During the summer of 1952, while working as a lifeguard in San Diego...."

Artists represented include Craig Kauffman, Billy Al Bengston, Robert Irwin and Sandow Birk, and many works tend toward the playful and deceptive. Under the first category comes Birk (a surfer and son of Seal Beach), whose 1999 painting "North Swell (Washington Crossing the Delaware)" shows a flotilla of wet-suited surfers, arranged to echo the famous Emanuel Leutze painting of George Washington and company heroically paddling.

In the deceptive category is "Aloha Oe," a collection of motorized hula dolls made of cast resin by artist Kevin Ansell two years ago. The dolls, which were part of a summer 2000 Surf Trip show staged at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (and later that year at Track 16 Gallery in Santa Monica's Bergamot Station), wear grass skirts and bikini tops like the usual dashboard-dwelling hula girls, but stand life-sized and carry guns, grenades and other weapons of revenge. A closer look reveals bruises around their eyes and needle tracks on their arms--hints, writes curator Tyler Stallings, of Yankee imperialism and the erosion of indigenous cultures.

Competing with the beach has never been easy for California museums, although, as artists and curators admit, it has occasionally been fun.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, for instance, the museum's Krichman Gallery has long been problematic for curators because it's so pretty to begin with: It's dominated by windows with a postcard view of La Jolla's coastline. And so in 1999, museum director Hugh Davies invited artist Robert Irwin to create a site-specific work there.

Irwin responded with an installation called "1nternational 2nternational 3nternational 4nternational," removing three rectangles of glass, two from corner windows and one from the central window. The idea was to violate the line between interior and exterior, to bring outdoor sounds, smells and other sensations into the spare, subdued space of the museum. But another factor, Davies said, was that Irwin was fed up with people walking into that gallery, pointing to that window and exclaiming, "Now there's the real art."

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