In 1978 I made a painting of skateboarders. At the time, a friend suggested it was a bad idea. Since skateboarding was already passé, the painting was as outdated as bell bottom pants.
But fashions revolve and always return, at least once. While bell bottoms are going through their second incarnation, skateboarding has proved to be not a passing fad merely, but an established urban sub-culture and now a tv spectator sport.
Watching the X Games on television the other day, I remarked that it still retains a lot of its streetness, it seems to be played for the love of doing it, as opposed to the professionals hunger for an ego salve and a large purse.
Skateboarding would appear to be about pushing the trick to the point of falling and even breaking bones. It is about displaying ones fearlessness while admiring ones comrades abilities and ingenuity. It is primarily a boys thing and it is subversive, because it is not a state authorized activity which uses youthful courage, like war, but a creative and challenging sport, a coming-of-age ritual they invented for themselves.
The center of this exhibition is a large traveling collection of skateboard decks from Canada, displayed in rows on two walls. Presumably, the concept was to invite a number of graphic designers to use a skateboard deck as a canvas and decorate it and the collective title of the work is 32 Inch Canvas.
Each work is accompanied by the artists name and a short resume. It may have been conceived of as a homage to skateboarding, but since the boards are new and unused and the images self-consciously designerly, the result is slick and sterile.
Skateboarders all decorate their own boards which over time and much use display many scars, matching the accumulated injuries of their riders. A far more interesting exhibition would result from a series of well-worn real decks that have been retired from the game.
But how can the visual artist respond to a physical art without falling into the trap of representation? Skateboarding itself is creative, a dance where the choreography is a meditation on failing and falling and the pieces that work best in this exhibition revolve conceptually around this idea.
Turn and Face the Stage is a continuous film loop by S.S. D Films, showing repeated attempts by young men of different levels of gravity-defying ability, skating and falling. The action takes place on the street and, unlike the X Games, the skaters wear no knee or elbow protection, and no helmets.
As if to rectify this lack, in a pile on the floor in a corner of the gallery, Susan Krause presents skateboard gear resembling protective wear as false joints - a prosthetic protection, perhaps.
James Walkers room installation takes us into the overstuffed studio of a visual artist who is also a skateboarder. The most compelling images here are the shelves made out of skateboard decks that have been split through the center, the wood shattered and apparently breaking under the weight of the objects which they support; breaking and falling, the metaphor for the virtuoso skateboarding stunt.
In prominent place on a wall on its own there is a large work by Asylm, a graffiti artist from Los Angeles, that was commissioned by SCAD. Graffiti was once an authentic urban youth culture in the 1980s, and itself a coming-of-age ritual with its own attendant dangers. Later, it was co-opted and transformed into a safe designer style,.
With the markets ability to assimilate everything, skateboarding is no doubt on the way to becoming a professional sport with cut-throat competition, celebrity stars, product lines and product endorsements.
But even as that happens, as skateboarders disappear over the horizon to collect their checks from some merchandiser or other, we can be certain that younger boys, convinced of their own immortality, will be devising some new and strange daredevil act to test their metal. I can hardly wait.
In House runs through June 28 at the Red Gallery, 201 E. Broughton St.
Bertha Husband is a native of Scotland who has studied art at Oxford University and Ruskin School of Fine Art. She has an MFA from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Her art criticism has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Somnambulist, and Left Curve.