Art, Surfing & Design

John_Durant_Architectural_Photogrpahy_Mingei_Museum_San_Diego_California_1Surf Craft – Mingei International Museum, San Diego

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