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Coastal confluence

Geography links the art in 'Baja to Vancouver,' but it's the social landscape that resonates.

February 01, 2004|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

San Diego — In his famous poster for the classic 1966 surfing documentary "The Endless Summer," graphic artist John Van Hamersveld posed his faceless tribe of free-spirited beach bums in an otherworldly terrain, engorged with pure psychedelic beauty. Above a vast crimson beach beneath a bright magenta sky, an enormous lemon-yellow sun sat bolted to the horizon.

The image was the stuff of epic literature, high or low. Three men carrying long boards -- silhouetted in the vivid landscape, courtesy of the blackness of a high-contrast photograph -- stood facing into the distance, prepared to enact a utopian quest for the perfect wave. The sun, poised between perpetual rising and continuous setting, forged an eternal radiance.

The endless summer of the 1960s did come to an end, of course, shrouded in a body bag sent home from Vietnam, shredded in the crimes of Watergate and subdued by the malaise that Jimmy Carter correctly diagnosed but could not remedy. A fierce rightward stagger -- the cruel flight into reactionary nostalgia that so often camouflages fear -- sealed its fate for American society. After the endless summer came the melancholy of autumn and the bitterness of winter.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, just up the road from the renowned surfing beach immortalized in 1968 by Tom Wolfe in "The Pump House Gang," a video projection records the bleak season of a seemingly endless winter. Canadian artists Shannon Oksanen and Scott Livingstone shot "Vanishing Point" (2001) on 8-mm film and transferred it to video, which emphasizes a homemade feel. Named for a 1971 B-movie -- a classic of drive-in existentialism -- the four-minute loop shows a red surfboard tossed on the gray waves of an empty beach. Its rhythms are set to the glum soundtrack of a lone electric guitar and a single snare. The camera searches a severe coastline, empty of human habitation.

The long board flips over and washes up on shore. Surf's down, the forlorn video suggests, alluding to more than the local weather report.

"Vanishing Point" is something of an emblem for the sprawling group exhibition in which it's found. No one will mistake the surfing video's cool colors and pine-forest cliffs for the sunny Southland. The film was shot at Long Beach, Vancouver, not Long Beach, Calif. Once, the term "West Coast" concentrated the mind on a relatively limited strip of real estate, much the way "East Coast" doesn't conjure up Georgia or the Carolinas. This show astutely recognizes that, in a globalizing world, regional identity changes. It codifies the shift.

"Baja to Vancouver: The West Coast and Contemporary Art" stretches that mental geography just beyond the artifice of national borders, south to the edge of Mexico and north to the lip of Canada. Along a 2,000-mile trans-national corridor, it identifies the lively artistic activity that has come to characterize all the coast's urban centers: Tijuana, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver.

A few of the show's 34 artists, such as Stan Douglas and Larry Sultan, have widely established reputations. Many have lately been drawing considerable notice -- including L.A.'s Delia Brown, Brian Calvin, Sam Durant, Thomas Eggerer, Evan Holloway and Catherine Sullivan; Tijuana's Marcos Ramirez; San Francisco's Chris Johanson; and Vancouver's Steven Shearer. And a few more -- like Oksanen and Livingstone, or the San Francisco animator Kota Ezawa -- will emerge as discoveries for viewers outside the artists' immediate working environs.

The shifting epicenter

Artists have always worked in these locales, of course, with varying degrees of skill and critical or commercial success. For more than a generation, the large-scale production of serious and influential art in North America has not been centralized in New York, as used to be the case. (Notably, all but six of the show's artists are under 45.) The exhibition catalog declares that a reimagined West Coast arguably represents North America's most vital art-making region.

Admittedly, that region is pretty big. But so is "the South" or "the Midwest" or "the Sunbelt," where no comparable phenomenon has been witnessed.

The old artistic idea of regionalism is wisely tossed aside by B2V -- the nickname used to brand "Baja to Vancouver." It doesn't claim there's a local style or visual aesthetic, presumed to be common across cities, states and national borders. Instead, the show chooses to focus on representational artworks -- specifically, those that engage with the region's social landscape.

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