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Postcard from New York: Swell at Metro Pictures, Friedrich Petzel Gallery and Nyehaus

Rob Reynolds, Untitled (STRANDED PHYLLIS #2), 2010, courtesy the artist and Friedrich Petzel Gallery.

This weekend I traded Miami’s tropical breezes for New York’s sticky and oppressive concrete heat. My surfer friends report that, while I was gone, storms brought rare overhead waves into South Beach. Meanwhile, I was wandering through Swell: Art 1950-2010, a sprawling group show at Metro Pictures, Friedrich Petzel Gallery and Nyehaus about, of all things, art and beach culture. The subject goes deep, encompassing not just surf aesthetics and technologies, but also a committed casual stance, drug-tinged mysticism and respect for the sheer power of a good wave.

Without getting too serious, Swell describes major and less-known art historical trajectories shaped by West Coast beach culture from the 50’s onward. Because curators Jacqueline Miro and Tim Nye had three gallery spaces to work with, there was no need to simplify the story. Swell is historically grounded at Metro Pictures and elaborated less formally at Friedrich Petzel Gallery and Nyehaus.

The four rooms at Metro Pictures are tightly curated around specific themes. The first room centers loosely on assemblage, describing a countercultural attitude that goes beyond the embrace of junk as raw material for art. Overt drug references and a kitschy island vibe imply dropping out of polite society. George Herm’s Scientific American (1973) is a Joseph Cornell-like set of boxes filled with decaying examples of modern convenience, from an old toaster to a jar of Miracle Whip.  Fred Tomaselli’s Radiating Column (2000) is layered with marijuana leaves and pills, and Ashley Bickerton’s Jack Blaylock (2001) is a portrait of a stoner, framed by flip-flops, who must have disappeared into the tropics to live out his surfer dreams.

Installation view, Swell: Art 1950 – 2010 at Metro Pictures, Gallery 1, courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures.

The second gallery at Metro Pictures shows off a long row of surfboards and some gloriously glossy Finish Fetish works. A cousin of Minimalism, Finish Fetish is described by artist and critic Peter Plagens as “generically cool, semitechnological, industrially pretty art made in and around Los Angeles in the 60s…. The patented ‘look’ was elegance and simplicity, and the mythical material was plastic, including polyester resin, which has several attractions: permanence (indoors), an aura of difficulty and technical expertise, and a preciousness (when polished) rivaling bronze or marble.” Surfboard style and customized car culture are primary influences; both are obsessed with juicy color and the perfect shine. Two candy-colored acrylic works by Craig Kauffman and a pair of luxuriously bright yellow and red fiberglass disks by De Wain Valentine isolate the perfect surface in abstract form.

Installation view, Swell: Art 1950 – 2010 at Metro Pictures, Gallery 2, courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures.

The third gallery, described as the Light and Space room, continues the use of modern industrial materials with a more muted aesthetic. There are no ephemeral installations and neither James Turrell nor Robert Irwin (the best known of the Light and Space artists) are represented here, but a concern for transparency and light is present, contained within discreet dimensional objects made out of glass, metal,  acrylic, polyester resin and industrial epoxy. Helen Pashgian’s sculptural forms seem almost liquid, as if they contained the ocean itself in clear, grey and blue. The water theme is repeated on the wall in photos of surfers in their element by Catherine Opie and Roe Ethridge.

Installation view, Swell: Art 1950 – 2010 at Metro Pictures, Gallery 3, courtesy the artist and Metro Pictures.

A forth upstairs room at Metro pictures focuses solely on recent work, none of which is tied to a particular artistic movement. This room lacks cohesiveness and the works do not boost each other up, which may simply be a curatorial weakness, though it led me to wonder whether younger artists are too splintered apart, floating individually without a tribe or a manifesto.

The Metro Pictures component of Swell is the largest and most clearly defined of the three, but it is backed up by looser, wilder groupings at Friedrich Petzel Gallery and Nyehaus that defy easy description. Friedrich Petzel’s two rooms are jam-packed with attitude, starting with the presentation itself. Works are sometimes stacked or overlapped, creating a visually noisy atmosphere with minimal white space. The connections between surfing and art are bared here: love of the sea appears in Robert Longo’s Untitled (Boris) (2010), a massive drawing of a wave, and Vija Celmins’ lovingly rendered ocean surface in Untitled (1970). Ashley Bickerton’s The Edge of Things – S. Pacific (1993) exudes a salty sarcasm, and photos of classic cars by Rob Reynolds show that it’s not just about surfing.

Installation view, Swell: Art 1950 – 2010 at Freidrich Petzel Gallery, courtesy the artist and Freidrich Petzel Gallery.

The Nyehaus show is the most chaotic of the three. The space itself, a townhouse, even feels a little rough around the edges. It is, in many ways, the less-polished dimension of the overall show, more about a moment in time. Straight-up black and white documentary photos give a picture of the west coast art and surfing scene in the 60’s, who was there, how they dressed, how they occupied a room, how they threw themselves into the waves. The upper floors are filled with paintings, drawings and sculpture, some of which would be right at home in a smoke-filled basement (black lights, velvet, phosphorescent painting) and others, specifically a group of works on paper by Raymond Pettibon verbalize a passion that fuels the entire show. Pettibon, in his hand-lettered words, declares a sincere awe for the ocean: “The romance of it, the sport of it and the smashing of it, the pleasure – an endless pleasure – of balancing to the swell: well, it’s over.”

Jimmy Ganzer, (L-R) James Corcoran and Michael Gross (1984), Tony Shafrazi, Los Angeles, CA (1982) and Paul, Frenchy and Ed Ruscha, Venice, CA (2000), courtesy the artist and Nyehaus.

Swell: Art 1950 – 2010

Metro Pictures, Friedrich Petzel Gallery and Nyehaus

June 30 – August 6, 2010

Thanks to Ashley Cumberland for the Miami surf report.

This post was contributed by Annie Hollingsworth winner of this year’s Miami Writer’s Prize.

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Postcard from New York: Swell at Metro Pictures, Friedrich Petzel Gallery and Nyehaus