Catching a Cultural Wave

SURFING is such a colorful part of American culture that life wouldn’t be the same without it. Just consider what’s happening this summer: on the big screen, an anarchic alienand his little Hawaiian gal pal catch a wave or two in Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch.” In “Blue Crush,” a romantic drama scheduled for release in August, female surfers try to conquer Oahu’s infamous Banzai Pipeline.

Sheryl Crow, in the video for her new song “Soak Up the Sun,” finds the surfer girl in her and hangs 10. In a commercial for the Toyota Corolla, the car rides ludicrously atop a monstrous longboard. And a Powerade commercial follows a surfer on a horrendously large swell at Mavericks, a Northern California surf break.

How did the ancient Hawaiian pursuit of he’nalu, or wave sliding, become an all-American pastime? Is there such a thing as surf culture? And if so, how has it affected pop culture and the arts? These are some of the questions addressed by “Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing,” an exhibition that opens here today at the Laguna Art Museum.

The exhibition’s curators, Craig Stecyk and Bolton Colburn, are longtime, avid surfers, yet even they are not quite sure what surfing is – never mind trying to define its culture. Mr. Stecyk, a photographer, filmmaker and journalist, writes in the exhibition catalog: “What is surfing? An aesthetic act? A performance art that requires no audience? Painted arcs done without a brush on an ever-changing canvas?”

These questions might sound a bit windy, but Mr. Colburn, the museum’s director and, not incidentally, the 1977 United States surfing champion, said that trying to define surf culture has been the most difficult job he has had in a career devoted to art. Laguna Beach, he said, is the center for surfing in Southern California and any art and commerce connected to surfing.

“Most of the creative people who deal with surfing live around here,” he said. “They feel really emotional about the material and have a stake in that history. It’s been a challenge to negotiate the waters with the various people who feel they should be included, or not included, for that matter.”

David Carson, the designer of the exhibition catalog and former art director of Surfer, Beach Culture and RayGunmagazines, said: “Bolton and I were joking about how we’re not going to show up at the opener. I think it might have made the book better had it been called “A History of SurfCulture’ rather than ‘The History.’ “

The exhibit is ambitious, covering the history of surfing -in paintings, posters, photographs, film and artifacts -from ancient Peru and Polynesia to the 21st century. It features artists who surf and surfers who paint, pop icons like Gidget and serious works that struggle with the meaning of American colonialism.

It is organized as a timeline. The museum has ancient Peruvian cave reliefs showing figures riding the waves on boards made from bound reeds. From the 19th century it has rare 200-pound surfboards, carved from koa trees. The boards are displayed alongside a spectacular 1784 etching by a crewman that documents Captain Cook’s third and last trip to Hawaii, showing Hawaiians paddling out to greet him on surfboards and in canoes. Cook’s visits spelled the beginning of the end for Hawaiians, who in the next hundred years were decimated by disease and a cruel plantation labor system. Surfing was also all but wiped out, partly because missionaries frowned on such a heathen activity.

Surfing did not reach America until the early 1900’s, when Hawaii began attracting tourists. They brought home souvenirs – carved ukuleles, Hawaiian shirts – decorated with surf scenes. These tchotchkes, several of which are on display, helped spark American interest in surfing,especially on the coasts.

Surfing also had an unofficial ambassador, Duke Kahanamoku, a native Hawaiian famous for winning a gold medal in swimming in the 1912 Olympics. Handsome and articulate, he dedicated his life to spreading the gospel of he’nalu, giving exhibitions on the West and East coasts. The museum displays several of his 200-pound koa surfboards, some ofthe first seen in the United States, as well as photographsof his life.

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