For anyone who has ever hoped to take a spin through the history of skateboard design, the Museum of Design Atlanta has created a rad new exhibition, “Skate It or Hang It?” As its title suggests, this survey of skateboard graphics, from the 1970s to the present, ponders the divisions between fine and functional art and between high- and lowbrow culture. That blurry edge allows for a point of inquiry and discovery.
From its humble beginnings in the late 1940s as a pastime for West Coast surfers when wave conditions weren’t right, skateboarding has grown into a wildly popular American recreational and sporting activity with over 3,000 venues nationwide, including Atlanta’s historic Old Fourth Ward Skatepark.
Skateboarding represents a particular cultural intersection; a unique blend of elements has served to shape its trajectory. Not only are the old references to surfing culture there, but also the urban street influences that extend beyond the sport and include punk rock, hip-hop, DIY fashion, graffiti and tattoo art, sci-fi, comic book and manga culture, video gaming and basically anything else that might capture the imagination of active, rebellious youth (above and beyond the mainstays of sex, drugs and rock and roll).
But the art and design of the boards themselves are the focus at MODA, and there is a lot to take in. Gallery One displays an impressive lineup of 148 boards spanning three decades, from 1980 to 2010, and presents an engaging overview of the amazing variety of designs that have made their way onto the decks.
From the early boards of cutting-edge, prototypical designers such as Wes Humpston and Jim Phillips to the advanced graphics of Evan Hecox and Eric Wollam, these two walls of deck designs are a riot of bold colors, intense visual contrasts and striking craftsmanship. It’s interesting to map the evolution of the designs and to see the many cross-cultural references these artists have pulled into their medium; in many ways it’s a historical slice of pop culture.
Also in this space is an overview of the evolution of board manufacture and graphic application techniques. A design by Shepard Fairey for South Central Manufacturing is used in the didactic display. Fairey has often been associated with the ascension of street art to fine art, along with such notable street artists as Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and, more recently, Banksy, whose works have garnered international acclaim and are now worth millions. As skate decks are increasingly viewed as a raw canvas for artists of all stripes, these pieces may also be collected with the same fervor.
The hallway gallery features giant mural installations by artists Charlie Owens and Atlanta’s own Alex Brewer (a.k.a. the graffitist HENSE). Owens’ style, which generally focuses on brooding visages of young hipster girls, carries all the sex and swagger of skateboard culture. His monochromatic figures glare and pout on the mosaic of wooden tiles on which they are depicted. Not surprisingly, Brewer’s colorful abstract mural on the opposite wall resembles a work of graffiti, yet expands the expectations of a mere “tag,” elevating the stylistic modular forms to a higher form of art.
In the back gallery, the best-known forerunners of skateboard design — such as the aforementioned Owens, Humpston and Phillips, along with Michael Sieben, Sean Cliver, Andy Howell, V. Courtland Johnson, Lance Mountain and Steve Olsen — are profiled with short histories and interviews, examples of early hand-drawn works, board designs and works of fine art. Each has put his own stamp on the medium and worked to expand its artistic potential.
What is most compelling about this exhibition is the celebration of what was once, at least in the beginning, outsider art. Although skateboard design has gone the way of increased commercialization over the years, its mettle was tested and galvanized in the real world by a community of young artists who played by their own rules. What’s cooler than that?
HUDGENS CENTER FOR THE ARTS
Artist and curator Didi Dunphy takes the concept of play very seriously. Her skateboard-inspired sculptures in “Summer Sk8,” at the Hudgens Center for the Arts through August 25, marry concepts of art and design instilled with a playful rock and roll edge.
Like many of the successors of Pop Art, such as Jeff Koons and Katharina Fritsch, Dunphy transforms everyday objects into art. Her skateboards carry all the sociocultural significance of the object — allusions to West Coast beach culture, punk rock, youth, rebellion, street culture, etc. — and more.
As exemplified by her line of indoor toys for adults, Dunphy has often striven to strike a balance between art and a functionality that is interactive and fun. Her indoor skateboards, first made seven years ago, were traditional decks upholstered in a durable puffy vinyl. Since then, she has moved away from function toward high-end design and adopted a host of nontraditional materials.
The shift is evident here. Materials used in these hybrids of pop, conceptual and appropriation art range from laser-cut plexiglass to Carrara marble. “Deruta Board” was made at the Grazia ceramics factory in Deruta, Italy, where a majolica fabricator created a board using pottery techniques and hand-painted glazes dating back to the 1600s. The work blends high and low culture, and it juxtaposes notions of history and modernity, fragility and strength, domesticity and athleticism, etc.
Dunphy has also curated an installation of 56 art boards at the Gallery@Hotel Indigo in Athens. Each work in “The Board Room,” on view through September 9, has been designed by a different Athens artist, including such noteworthies as James Barsness, Jennifer Hartley, George Davidson and Jeffrey Whittle.
Barsness in particular offers a standout work. His familiar orgiastic and fantastic creatures writhe, frolic and cavort on the horizontally oriented plane, bringing the drug-induced fantasy references of many skateboard illustrations to a new level.
Many artists chose to use the prefab wooden deck as a blank canvas. Jay Nackashi supplants it altogether in “This Makes It All Possible.” His sculpture comprises individual pieces of wood configured in a skateboard’s standard size and shape. The textural surface resembles an intricate 3-D puzzle.
Some artists here did go three-dimensional. Sculptor Donald Cope used the board as a bench in his midcentury-modern-inspired rocker. Like Dunphy’s work, the Eames-like piece marries art and functionality with clean, modern design.
Photographer Michael Lachowski, of Pylon fame, has traversed the boundary between two- and three-dimensionality in virtual fashion. His image of a lone boarder at a cavernous skatepark is meant to be viewed through 3-D glasses. The piece plays with notions of self and other: the illusion of depth allows one to imagine being part of the scene.