Blue Black – A Cold Water Surf Exhibition, currently showing at Circle Contemporary Gallery, Wadebridge brings together the work of three artists inspired by surfing in the Northern Hemisphere.
Whilst all three artists share a love of wave riding and the experience of cold water seascapes, their artworks exhibit the variety of contemporary approaches now employed by the once stereotyped ‘surf artist’.
Since surfing’s origins as a minority interest in the 1950s and 60s, it has developed to become an accepted, though often misunderstood, element of global mainstream culture. Part sport, part lifestyle choice, the anodyne nature of the activity means that it is often referred to in passing, but rarely becomes the focal point of serious examination by artists.
The surfer’s lifestyle contains so many sub-cultural ingredients that are increasingly permeating pop culture and mainstream iconography
Why not? The surfer’s lifestyle contains so many sub-cultural ingredients that are increasingly permeating pop culture and mainstream iconography. Surfing is in fact a perfect medium through which to examine the social, political, and anthropological aspects of the increasingly diverse demographic of coastal-living communities.
The artists in Blue Black are multi-disciplinary, with multi-faceted careers. Their influences and interests are wide-ranging, and this is evident in their work. An awareness of art history and contemporary painting, sculpture, graphics, film etc. informs the work, and it is healthier for it. The days of the ‘surf head’ stereotype, loafing around waiting for the swell to arrive, have been negated by precise online forecasting websites that afford surfers time to plan a life around their passion and develop careers.
Take Mickey Smith as a prime example: Film maker, photographer, musician, he has led a nomadic lifestyle since leaving his native Penzance eight years ago. Smith’s monochrome close-up photographs of breaking waves are the perfect expression of the hard-won image. Swimming like a fish, (fins on his feet and fish eye camera in hand), in treacherous, frigid seas off the west coast of Ireland, Smith captures the energy that captivates, (and carries surfers to shore), as it explodes in the littoral regions.
Smith cleverly navigates the commercial necessities of his lifestyle by collaborating with companies who are keen to latch on to the cool mystique embodied by him, and his work. The product placement of the ‘new’ cold water wetsuit by Cornish company Finisterre, alongside his photographs, is testament to this.
The black and white aesthetic of Smith’s work chimes well with the mixed-media works of Ben Cook in the next gallery
The black and white aesthetic of Smith’s work chimes well with the mixed-media works of Ben Cook in the next gallery. Cook examines ‘The Surfer’s Gaze’- the particular way a surfer views and responds to the landscape. Of all the artists exhibiting, his work is the most diverse in materials and references. The ‘waxwork’ paintings made from melted and dripped surf wax, seem to be in deep conversation with Smith’s photographs, sharing the same ‘surf energy’. However Cook’s other pieces, from the ‘Finish Fetish’ fiberglass work from 2006, to the ‘readymade’ recycled neoprene wetsuit landscapes of 2014, place his surf art firmly in debt to the legacy of abstract painting and minimalist sculpture.
On the stairs, Cook’s ‘Toxic Paradox’ flower prints succinctly reference the sports’s dirty little secret, the paradox of surfing’s ‘green’ image; betrayed by the fact that most surfers ride plastic surfboards and wear petrochemical wetsuits.
Upstairs the surfboards and 35mm photography of John Eldridge, add a more literal context the show. There is no doubt that the craft of surfboard (hand) shaping is an art, but unfortunately many surfboards look much the same to the untrained eye. Eldridge’s mid-length retro shapes are decorated with pin line graphics that have a feel of Peter Saville in his Manchester prime. Four photographs, featuring cold water surfers, printed directly from the negative are exhibited alongside the boards. The retro feel of the images hark back to a simpler time for surfing: less crowded waves, pre-competition and mass commerce, the time when surfing still had a ‘soul’.
Eldridge is personification of the multi-disciplinary, multi faceted work in Blue Black. He owns an excellent café next door that continues the retro, feel-good vibe, and when he is not surfing, making art or shaping surfboards he is rebuilding and customizing motorcycles. As with cold water surfing, building a life around one’s passions and nostalgia for simple living, is the zeitgeist.
Blue Black-A Cold Water Surf Exhibition is at Circle Contemporary Gallery, Hawksfield, A39, Wadebridge, Cornwall, PL27 7LR
Till 25th March 2015
Words Murphy James
Photography Adj Brown www.adjbrown.com