"Grind: The Graphics and Culture of Skateboarding"--at the Huntington Beach Art Center through Oct. 15--is a miniature version of the sort of show the Laguna Art Museum's ongoing "Eye Tattooed America" could have been but isn't.
The great thing about "Grind" is that it looks at skateboard culture through the experiences of insiders--many of whom live and work near the art center--and also incorporates a thoughtful overview of how the imagery reflects other aspects of pop culture.
You get a peek at the evolution of a board's design, the iconoclastic attitudes of the designers, their sneaky fights with established skateboard companies, and their hopeless battles with lawyers representing corporations whose logos they gleefully ripped off and rejiggered.
Tyler Stallings, the center's education director, is co-curator (with professional skateboarder Ed Templeton) of this engrossing show. He writes in the small, information-packed catalogue that although the skateboarders "appear to exist on the margins of society," they're "simultaneously trying to make the mainstream world acknowledge them on their own terms."
The skateboard phenomenon, once closely linked with surf culture, has developed into a free-standing alternative activity with its own in-your-face visual style and behavior.
The style is largely an ironic takeoff on the homogenized party line big corporations feed to youngsters adrift in a consumer culture whose ad slogans long ago replaced the shaping influence of traditional nuggets of wisdom.
The behavior--involving massive airborne assaults on bulky objects in the public domain--injects danger and excitement into the numbing blandness of the shopping malls and parking lots that constitute contemporary public spaces.
The boards themselves represent a cavalcade of high and low art (from Cubism to comics) reworked in noisy colors, and neatly fitted within the slim, bent-oval compass of a piece of fiberglass. For all their counterculture rebellion, the designers are obliged to tailor their ideas to a matrix as rigid in its way as the form of a sonnet or a three-minute pop single.
The designs include amorphous images familiar from underground comics (stylized splatters and eruptions, rubbery faces); collisions of Eastern and Western imagery (the Buddha holding a Slurpee); and pop culture motifs from the past 30 years (wide-eyed kid cartoons, a kitsch art pelican, a beatnik). Several incorporate reworkings of Expressionist and Surrealist art, perennial adolescent faves because their emotionally extreme or physically impossible images suggest drug experiences.
Board artists also reveal a fascination with the adulation and trashing of celebrities of music and fashion (Courtney Love-related innuendo, a Claudia Schiffer portrait). Given the overwhelmingly young, male profile of skater culture, it's no coincidence that both of these celebs are women. More intriguing are the links between the fickle, obsessively detail-oriented worlds of high fashion and the street culture of skateboarders and hip-hop music.
In this universe--helplessly in thrall to its own subset of consumer culture--style is everything. Get one detail wrong and you're a hopeless impostor. Unlike the earnestly idea-driven sensibility of '60s counterculture, for postmodern skateboarders, it's all about ransacking the recent history of style for cool looks.
Templeton's own self-described art education sounds exactly right for his line of work: flipping through art books at Rizzoli bookstore; going to museums while touring Europe, and recently immersing himself in computer graphics.
Probably by coincidence, "Grind" relates in a sneaky way to the center's main offering, "Komar & Melamid: 'The People's Choice: The Polling of America.' " The two Russian emigre artists hit upon the idea of commissioning a poll examining U.S. taste in art and--tongues firmly in cheeks--producing one painting that includes all the qualities Americans say they like.
To illustrate some of the findings of the poll (the actual document, prepared by a professional polling company, is also available in the gallery) the two wily Russians produced large, colorful visual materials: pie graphs and bar charts and charts that resemble undulating abstract landscapes.
By scanning these materials, the viewer learns a bewildering array of facts: for example, that Americans' favorite color in art is blue; that they prefer art to be the size of a 19-inch TV rather than that of a book or magazine; and that 74% of people who say they don't go to museums only want to look at art that makes them happy.
Of course, even in framing their questions, the artists are tweaking viewers by reflecting our national fondness for statistics, however meaningless, and our love affair with consumer culture. (How apt that Americans prefer TV-sized works!)
Although American preference leans overwhelmingly toward traditional styles, the large charts hung on the gallery walls resemble color field paintings. (One bar graph reproduced as a three-dimensional floor piece with no accompanying data drains the content from a visual aid, turning it into Minimalist sculpture.)
Seeing gallery walls filled with charts resembling paintings also suggests an interesting paradox: Although we are accustomed to getting statistical information in abstract formats, we strongly resist perceiving ideas or feelings in abstract art.
As a piece de resistance , the artists rendered "America's Most Wanted Painting," based on the results of the poll. Given the Cold War demonization of the U.S.S.R., it is amusing to see that this ridiculous pastiche (a lakeside landscape with George Washington, three modern figures, a deer and a preponderance of blue coloring) is very similar to "Russia's Most Wanted Painting": a lakeside forest scene with Jesus, two children and a bear.
"America's Most Unwanted Painting," on the other hand, is a tiny abstract piece filled with textured orange, pink, yellow and gray triangular forms. In fact, these elements resemble some of the early-'60s pastiche designs on the skateboards. Which just goes to show how unerringly the skateboard designers employ visual elements that make authority figures cringe.
This viewer does have one small quibble: Typos and misspellings are visible on too many of the center's labels these days, making good material look strangely illiterate. Yet both shows continue to boost the profile of the 6-month-old art center, combining timeliness, art smarts and a creative treatment of a key community activity.
* "Grind: The Graphics and Culture of Skateboarding" (through Oct. 15) and "Komar & Melamid: 'The People's Choice: The Polling of America"' (through Nov. 12), at the Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach. Hours: Noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; noon to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $3, students and seniors $2; during run of "Grind," $1 for skateboarders with their boards. (714) 374-1650.