Paul McNeil
Paul McNeil

People Who Surf: Paul McNeil

New Zealand-born goofyfooter applies an irregular approach to creating humorous, surf-inspired art

A wave, painted a bold azure, fills one of two opposing walls inside the narrow, rectangular gallery space at Canggu, Bali-based Deus Ex Machina. Standing tall and cresting to form a lackadaisical, drooping C-shape, the wave, though certainly top-to-bottom, looks soft and unimposing, a result of the soft mark-making technique used to create texture on the wave's face and the pair of bulbous, yellow googly eyes set atop its peak.

The mural reflects the irreverence with which New Zealand-born, Byron-based artist Paul McNeil approaches most topics, from surfing and surf culture to music and politics to philosophical ruminations. McNeil painted the large, defanged wave for his "Goofy As" installation, put on in conjunction with the recent Deus 9 Foot and Single Festival. McNeil's sardonic wit and dry humor emanates from the dozens of pieces that adorn the walls.

"Surfing is goofy and fun and ridiculous. It's hilarious," McNeil told me when we talked at Deus.

Aside from collaborations with surf brands and surfboard shapers, McNeil's work – which bounces between colorful and humorous and grey and grim – has been featured on the music posters and record sleeves of musicians, including The Beastie Boys, Beck, Dinosaur Jr., Fugazi, Pavement, and Sonic Youth. McNeil is also a cofounder of The Art Park, a gallery and artist residency project in Byron Bay.

I recently caught up with McNeil to talk about how his upbringing in New Zealand, his lack of formal training, and surf culture influence his art.

Deus Ex Machina, “Goofy As”

You grew up in New Zealand and started surfing there. How do you think growing up there shaped your worldview as an artist? How did the surf scene there influence your approach to surfing?

I was privileged to grow up in a country as beautiful as New Zealand. But it was pretty grey, boring and English then, and lacking in art. I'm pleased to say that nowadays we are surrounded by art and everyone's an artist. But back in the '70s, it was a very rare thing, and not a "real" job, so to speak.

My art education came from comics and Hot Rod art, which was wild. The surf scene was the cool scene, but we all looked to the U.S. and Australian surf mags for style and culture – you know, Gerry Lopez and that incredible Lightning Bolt, which I still use often in my art today.

Were you interested in art at an early age? Were your parents artists?

I was interested in art, but just drawing, really. I won tickets to a Hot Rod show when I was seven years old by drawing a car. That got me stoked. I wish I still had that drawing. My parents weren’t artists, but my mum was creative. I showed no real interest in learning anything else, so I guess everyone just pushed my art along. But I did dig painting and drawing. Hell, it’s way more fun than math.

Paul McNeil

Was there a particular person or group of artists who made you want to be an artist yourself?

Looking back, yes. Ed Roth and his car culture was a big influence. He just made art out of everything in his world. Rick Griffin and his surf art also blew my mind. But, realistically, Warhol and Keith Haring were big influences. Their ability to be poppy and visually fun with simplistic imagery, and change the world with it – amazing.

Do you have any formal art training?

Zero training. I went to life drawing classes twice but got really bored. I try not to improve my art skills much now, as I think if you get too good, it looks uninteresting.

You moved to Byron in the early 2000s and began a surfboard collaboration with shapers Matty Yates and Dain Thomas. Can you talk about Sea Surfboards, the influential role of the gallery you guys opened, and what that era meant for your development as an artist?

I moved up to Byron Bay and was doing art stuff with Bob McTavish, and Dain and Matty were working in the factory. We became good friends through music and beer and I realized that their headspace was where I belonged. They were both brilliant surfers who had tired of the whole scene and were finding joy in making and surfing boards that trimmed on waves – I later called it the No-Wave scene, as they had no interest in pumping, heavy barrels. We hung out a lot and dreamed up the idea of getting our own space that was all about art, music, and surf culture and a cool clubhouse for us to work in. The SEA CELL opened in 2007 and was a seriously great time in our lives. All of a sudden, I had the opportunity to do a lot of art on boards, which was a dream. It was certainly one of the most productive times of my life. People were drawn to the Cell. For a moment, it felt like we were the center of the alternative surf world, which suited me just fine. It lasted a few great years, but like all cool things, it was really hard to make any money from it [Laughs]. Fortunately, a bunch of beautiful boards are out there in the world that, one day, I'd like to buy back.

You take a kind of cursory approach to each piece. I've read a line from you where you’ve said if a painting took longer than an hour, you weren't interested. What do think the merits are to such a hurried or detached approach?

Well, that's my art joke: If a painting takes an hour to paint, then it's half an hour too long. But yes, I do work quickly. I'm trying to say something that's strong but simple, and you just can’t labor that stuff. I have learned to create images in my head, and then, when the time is right, I output them, so to speak.

Deus Ex Machina “Goofy As”

Quite a few of your shows have had the word "goofy" in the title and have featured many pieces that poke fun at, or make reference to, surfing. What's funny about surfing, in your mind?

Well, us goofyfooters think we are the chosen ones, right? But I like my art to be humorous and to talk in “surf-speak," as I want surfers to check out my art. Surfing is fun. I guess that makes it funny? It's carefree and loose but can be punishing — which is funny, if it's happening to someone else.

I've also heard you talk about how surfing can also have a darker side, a "David Lynch-type" vibe. Was there ever a time where you were interested in making art that was more grim, or earnest in any way?

Well, I think my art does have a dark side, but maybe no one notices? Should I be darker? [Laughs]. [Pieces I've made] like "Black out” and "Stranded" are grim statements in the context of surfing. But, yes, the worldview of chilled-out dudes with long hair and peace and love on their minds is a far cry from the everyday reality of surfing, which is basically a bunch of tradies who are willing to punch your face in over a lump of moving water. And this is exactly why the world needs more art.

Deus Ex Machina “Goofy As”