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Surfboards Installation Goes Beneath the Surface : Art review: Innovative approach at Cal State Fullerton links sampling of seductive designs to sculptures and other works in the exhibition.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Everyone familiar with so-called Finish Fetish art of the 1960s knows that it couldn’t have come about without new plastics developed by the Southern California aerospace industry and used by innovative surfboard shapers. Still, the usual tactic in exhibiting these sleek, glossy works is to relegate the surf connection to a brief mention in the catalogue.

Elizabeth Kramer, a graduate student in exhibition design at Cal State Fullerton, has stepped boldly into this void with “Shape: Forming the L.A. Look,” through Dec. 3 at the university’s Main Gallery.

Kramer’s simple yet innovative approach was to bring a sampling of seductively surfaced boards into the gallery, where they have been elegantly installed by in-house technician Marty Lorigan.

Surrounded by photo blowups of well-known surfers of the period and accompanied by videotape snippets of surfer lore, the boards are revealed not only as luscious objects but also as cultural signs that relate to the sculptures and other works of art in the show.

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A 1962 Hobie Alter board called Splash Abstract--an ivory-colored oval with meandering turquoise brush strokes embedded under the slick surface--looks particularly prescient. Whether consciously or not, the board mimics the transformation of the Angst- ridden, brushy intensity of Abstraction Expressionism into the smooth impersonality of the style that became known as Finish Fetish.

A reciprocal phenomenon is that much of the art suddenly appears related to the aerodynamics of surfing, as well as to the often-cited light effects of the sun-washed California coast.

You find yourself noticing the way Peter Alexander’s 8-foot-tall cast polyester resin “Cobalt Wedge” twists slightly as it rises in an ever-narrowing shaft of liquid blueness, or the parabolic shapes of light and shadow (like surfboard tips) in Larry Bell’s installation, “Corner Lamp,” or the showy way Tony DeLap’s floor sculpture, “Modern Times III,” curves and balances.

Never mind that DeLap, though long interested in perceptual issues, was not one of the Cool School, a.k.a. Finish Fetish gang. Kramer effectively stretches the notion of “L.A. look” to cover artists who may not have been surfers or had studios in Venice Beach but who nonetheless incorporated aspects of the look.

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Kramer does veer slightly off course when she claims as her central thesis that both surfers and artists in the ‘60s were pursuing “experimentation, self-expression and innovation.” This description is too broad; it doesn’t distinguish between the Cool School and every other modernist artist. But surfing does offer a rich potential field of metaphor, beyond the obvious shared materials.

If you think of the sport as a solitary, full-body activity practiced with a single, carefully designed “tool"--a test of endurance and wits against a force of nature--then it suggests the much-vaunted lonely struggles of the Action Painters, wrestling with paint and inner demons in the ‘50s.

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But if you concentrate on the innovative aspects (new materials, new shapes, new personal styles) of surfing in the ‘60s, and on the perceptual states induced by flying on a wave--then you’ve come close to the world of the L.A. look.

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Using sensuous man-made materials, it translated intense yet impersonal sensory experience--a quicksilver blend of speed, color, brightness and sparkle--into the still, quiet medium of sculpture.

To be sure, there were signal differences in sensibility between the art and the boards, beyond the obvious issue of practicality.

While the tubular motif in Paul Grass’ knee board from 1968 recalls Craig Kauffman’s contemporaneous bubble pieces, the psychedelic floral pattern on Hobie Alter’s Hobie/Corky Carroll Mini-Model of 1969 has nothing in common with the L.A. look. The Cool School rejected all forms of ornamentation in favor of reproducing as closely as possible the experience of pure light and color.

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The weak spot in the exhibition is the limited selection in the show of work actually from the Finish Fetish era. Only three of the 11 works of art in the show date from the ‘60s (two were made in the ‘70s). Missing are such key artists as Robert Irwin, DeWain Valentine and Billy Al Bengston.

Including a second-generation artist (Eric Johnson) also muddies the exhibition’s central theme of innovation at a particular moment in the dual Southern California histories of surfing and art.

The small display of surfboards made by prominent artists five years ago for the “Heal the Bay Surfboard Invitational” in Santa Monica inadvertently underlines the fleeting quality of that moment.

By 1990, the art world of Southern California had grown much more cosmopolitan, much less based on local identity. Commissioned for a charity event, these boards fall into the whimsies-by-famous-artists category; innovation was no longer at issue.

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Still, “Shape” gets high marks for putting a fresh spin on a much-exposed body of work--and introducing aspects of the surfing world in a visually striking, cliche-free context.

* “Shape: Forming the L.A. Look,” through Dec. 3 at the Main Art Gallery, Cal State Fullerton, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton. Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Free (parking $1.50 weekdays, free Sundays). (714) 773-3262 .


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