Southern California has been a mecca for surfers for more than 60 years. But while its hundreds of miles of coastline should technically be enough for everyone to share, there are Angelenos who've never even seen the ocean — nor could they dream of living close enough to visit with any regularity. “You can think about this in terms of gentrification. It’s an issue we deal with in Los Angeles. Most coastal communities have gentrified in an intense way,” says Amy Yao, a surfer and artist originally from the Valley. Yao curated “Sea Sick in Paradise,” an exhibit featuring 46 established and emerging artists, at Depart Foundation’s new space in Malibu, which aims to address these and other issues raised by our shifting relationship with the coast.
“Things have changed so much,” she says. “I feel like what’s interesting about the work is it speaks to that.”
The show includes plenty of images inspired by the idyllic side of surfing — the toned bodies, the clear water, the perfect wave. Ferus Gallery veteran Billy Al Bengston’s Lost at Sea, 6:00PM is a long, horizontal, two-toned acrylic that suggests a calm ocean under a coral-pink sky. A few steps away, Jeff Ho's mural Black & White, which says “Locals Only” in white letters on a black background, clashes with the more romantic depictions of beach culture.
“There’s always been a problem of access to some beaches. Now we have more awareness that the problem does exist, but there’s always ways around it,” says Ho, whose Zephyr Productions was a mecca of surf and skateboard manufacturing in '70s Santa Monica and sponsored the original Z-Boys of Dogtown. “I believe that everybody can kind of coexist, people that live on the beach and people that want to use the beach and have access to the beach. But there has to be some kind of communications.”
On Thursday, July 13, Depart Foundation hosted a panel discussion at Malibu Civic Theater called “The New Lineup: Surfing, Sea-Level Rise, Access and Inclusion in the 21st Century.” On hand were some of the artists in the show, including Christine Blanco from Brown Girl Surf. Her gouache, Indian ink and watercolor Sharks shows three nonwhite women in wetsuits, waiting for their convertible as an aqua-green wave breaks behind them.
The moderator was Professor Jon Christensen, co-author of a 2017 UCLA study showing that people making less than $40,000 a year were less likely to visit the beach. Sixty-two percent of respondents said limited public access, lack of affordable options for parking and overnight accommodations, and limited public transportation were among the obstacles that kept them away.
“We have to go beyond technical solutions to thinking about changing image and everyday culture,” Christensen says, pointing to Brown Girl Surf’s program that brings girls from underprivileged neighborhoods to the beach. “They can see themselves there and see themselves reflected in the coast and the ocean. The ocean is not someone else’s place. It’s theirs, and they have a way to access it.”
A graduate of Art Center and Yale School of Art, Yao says diversity depends on the beach. “Malibu has this territorial thing that kind of mirrors the community, the exclusivity and whatever,” she says, suggesting San Onofre for diversity and Orange County for Republicans. “I would say compared to the ’50s, maybe it’s a question of structural inequalities, if you think about how race and economics are structured. Maybe people from a certain race aren’t afforded the opportunities to have leisure time.”
Artist Billy Al Bengston used to surf in the ’50s and ’60s when the scene consisted of a handful of white guys. Ironically, it took a woman to catapult the sport to the quintessence of cool. “It was primarily a good old boys' club until ‘Gidget’ showed up, and then it was still a good old boys' club with a ‘Gidget,” he says of the popular Sandra Dee surf-set ’60s saga that borrowed Bengston’s nickname, Moondoggie.
According to Yao, many surfers of Bengston’s era were also into motocross, partially proven by the fact that Bengston supported himself as a semi-pro racer before his art began to sell. Similarly, Ho’s boards, known for their style and finish, became some of the most coveted boards on the coast.
“Finish fetish came from both motocross and surfing,” says Yao, listing artists like the show’s Chris Ballreich and David Donahue, whose genre is rooted in Bengston’s era. “The connection between those people, Bengston and Ken Price and that generation, and the young people, they made a lot of their own crafts. They were working on motorcycles and they came to understand materials and how to do this work.”
Bengston remembers when, if there were more than a dozen people out in Malibu, it was too crowded to surf. Today, they come from everywhere. “It’s really diverse,” Yao says. “You see a spectrum of people from all over L.A.”
Ho agrees it’s a bit better now compared with the ’70s, when he was one of a few Asian-American guys building boards. “The beaches are changing, and so is our society and how we view things.”
“Sea Sick in Paradise,” Depart Foundation at Malibu Village, 3822 Cross Creek Road, Suite 3844, Malibu; through Sept. 30. departfoundation.com/sea-sick-in-paradise-2.