Sunday, 29 August 2010

Fin de siècle

Preview of Making Waves by John Neylon in The Adelaide Review

Surfboard art is potentially about as good as urban tribalism gets. Unlike site-specific graffiti, it gets around. Boards are bigger than T-shirts. But like trash talk T-shirts and customised utes, a lot of so-called surf art is anything but. All from central warehouse casting. Skulls, skeletons, flame licks, crystal tubes, Nirvana sunsets, yoghurt waves, pneumatic mermaids and terrytoon dolphins, doth not pure Corduroy make. Not in art terms anyway. Gotta go deep into the creative Green Room to pull it off. Furniture designer-come surfboard maker Peter Walker has been in there for some time, acquiring the skills necessary to shape boards but also investigating what happens when artist and designers get on board at the concept end and ride it through to the end. Walker was Head of the Furniture Design Studio at the JamFactory Contemporary Craft and Design Centre in the late 90s. Since 2001 he has divided his time as Associate Professor of Furniture Design at the Rhode Island School of Design, USA, and Adelaide where he designs and builds hollow wooden surfboards. Each board is uniquely made (predominantly from a light timber – Paulownia), sealed, vented and fibre-glassed.

Making Waves spotlights a series of artist and designer collaborations. The assembled quiver of around 15 boards includes a number of Walker’s own designs as well as pieces conceived and designed in partnership with artists and designers known to the artist. Stephen Bowers is in the pack. In this work, Bowers’ distinctive blue and white Chinese export ware motifs, usually found on his outsized ceramic platters and vase forms, transformed the board into a totemic object embedded with OkkaChin-fusion motifs and references. The Bowers/Walker board in this current exhibition is a refinement of this original concept. In the earlier work Bowers painted directly onto the timber. In this subsequent work he laid down areas of white and applied his blue line and wash illustrations over the top. The crispness of effect has been enhanced by drop shadows which cause each unit of design to read as if a fragment of blue and white porcelain. Combined with the highly polished fibre-glass finish, the effect is visually striking. It implies fragility. No way this board is going to get wounded in action. But Walker maintains that each one is surf-ready. As he sees it, “It’s essential – their functionality is implicit in the artistic worth – even if some of them don’t get wet, they could, and that potential is paramount.”

It’s hard to see these beautiful objects getting waxed let alone exfoliated on a limestone reef. But Gerry Wedd’s just might. I think he’d be up for it. His board’s shape is customised in size and shape. The “skin” design has been sourced from the cell-like structure of the Paulownia timber used in its construction. The end result is reptilian. A bit of croc for Wedd’s Middleton slop. Walker’s own interventions are startling to say the least. Boards have been thrown in to the fire or heaped with hot rocks. Risky. He tells of one board getting away, fully alight before he could save it. The association of fire licks with foam flicks rocks. Respect, not only for each artist’s ideas, but for the surfboard as something with its own history, something clean and distinctive in a dirty old mixed up world, underpins the project. Walker’s epiphany came in the form of a Dale ‘The Hawk’ Velzy memorial paddle-out in San Diego in the company of around 2000 surfers. He’s been to the Tom Blake well and drunk deeply. As Walker comments, “The boards themselves are a study of the design evolution of the surfboard, with each one referencing earlier innovations and developments, spanning from 1920’s to the present day, while incorporating subtle changes… The boards themselves could be considered “a work of art”, combining performance/practical design considerations, iconic sculptural forms, particular proportional relationships between material characteristics and form, detailed attention to craftsmanship”.

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