In the summer of 2014, the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park mounted an exhibit dedicated to San Diego’s surfing history. The museum, recently designed by CO Architects is everything a traditional museum should be: clean, surprisingly sincere and well organized.
I wrote a review of the Surf Craft exhibit for Surfer’s Journal that posed this question: is it possible to create an exhibition of surfboards predicated on the understanding that a surfboard is an object of art?
The answer is yes – if you place surfboards in the context of other great functional masterpieces, from furniture to automobiles, where handcrafted prototypes play an enormous part in product design. Think: Charles and Ray Eames. Think: Ferdinand Porsche. Think: Mies Van der Rohe.
The Mingei International Museum is dedicated to the unusual proposition put forth by Japanese philosopher Sōetsu Yanagi: traditional handcrafted objects possess a powerful beauty based on function. Here in the pristine main gallery of the museum, Yanagi’s original idea is carried into the present by San Diego surf-historian and first-time curator Richard Kenvin in support of the idea that surfboards are art. Kenvin has curated a large collection of multi-era, multi-function surf craft from hand-made wooden boards through early production models to today’s experimental ideas. A pair of early production Hobie hot-dog boards greet you upon entering the museum, and though the exhibit is roughly chronological, there are side excursions to George Greenough’s flexible kneeboards, a fleet of hand-foiled fins and meticulous models by Carl Ekstrom.
The exhibit is arranged, displayed and lit with rigorous attention to detail: surfboards and prototypes are labeled, attributed, dated and affixed to bone white gallery walls. The lighting design is clean and soft, revealing values a casual observer might have missed if the surfboards were anywhere you might normally see a surfboard – like your garage.
But you don’t have to be a surfer to appreciate the fantastic patina on an early Hobie or the finish on a hand-made balsa. Years of layered color, ding repair and scuffs from the board washing to the beach after hundreds of wipeouts have created the abstracted subtlety of a Richard Diebenkorn: color that doesn’t come out of a tube and can’t be purchased.
The show’s heart, and one of the key elements (which keeps the the exhibit from looking like any high-end surf shop with, wares enticingly displayed), is the center of the Grand Plaza where a collection of Terry Hendricks’ experimental knee machines hover like a school of bright, oversized fish swimming through the gallery at eye level. Surf Craft is a guided tour through one man’s take on modern surfing history. Is it a complete history? That’s a tall order for any one show. Are there gaps and missing parts? Of course. But the exhibit pays homage to the greats: Duke Kahanamoku, Tom Blake, Bob Simmons – and the obscure: George Freeth, Bear Mirandon and the countless unknown craftsmen from whom modern surfing draws its heart and soul.
John Durant – October 2014