Courtesy James O' Mohoney, Santa Barbara Surfing Museum

I TAKE A PERVERSE PLEASURE IN BAD SIMULATOR rides. Routinely found in shopping malls, boardwalks and county fairs, and subject to almost instantaneous technological obsolescence, they are the most abject of environmental art forms (save for Laserium). My favorite has long been the big white plastic thing by the Griffith Park pony rides, taking a spin in which could be likened to having yourself locked and shaken in a Dumpster while trying to watch a cartoon of slot-car racing on a broken color TV. But recently I encountered a virtual environment that bettered this classic — not only in its failure to convey the experience it supposedly mimics, but in seeming to take audacious pride in providing an almost diametrically opposed experience.

I'm as ho-daddy as they get, but even I can tell that Peter Schroff's Pre-Fab Tube (2002) is about as far from the central mystical experience of the surf cult as a quart of Thunderbird is from the blood of Christ. Known to most of us through first-person accounts, photographs and film, the transcendent suspended moment of womblike calm and peaking exhilaration that occurs when a surfer is enclosed in a suddenly static, emerald-tinted cylinder of surging saltwater is here reproduced with a stinky, room-size tunnel formed from translucent industrial-green plastic. A small disco ball spins to suggest the glinting of sunlight through foam, and a soundtrack of rumbling surf music (“Theme From Hawaii Five-O” while I was riding) provides a slight kinesthetic tremble. Best, the briny tang of the bounding main is approximated by the Scent Blitz Mini pro air freshener, which emits blasts of polyester pheromones every few seconds. Sublime in its way — art's failure to accurately describe life is seldom so awesomely embodied — Pre-Fab Tube serves as the entryway to the long-awaited Laguna Museum exhibit “Surf Culture,” a rambling, overstuffed extravaganza that provides many similar epiphanies of ambivalence.

Surfing is the quintessential symbol of late-20th-century Southern California pop culture, a symbol that was improbably embraced by the rest of America and most of the world, and culminated in what, in some circles, is considered the greatest popular artwork of the century — the Beach Boys' uncompleted Smile LP. Beneath this familiar, overarching media narrative lies a plethora of parallel histories — the anthropological history of surfing, the sociological chronicles of actual surf communities, the stories of the technology of board design and the techniques of surfing innovators, as well as the subcategories of the pop-cultural phenomenon — surf music, surf films, surf fashion, fiction . . . art. Against good sense, “Surf Culture” tries to document and honor each of these epic topics, and wipes out. There are four or five excellent small shows (and a couple of mediocre ones) jumbled together and jammed into every nook and cranny of Laguna's limited facilities.
Rick Griffin, cover of comic book, Tales from the Tube, no. 1(Courtesy James O' Mohoney, Santa Barbara Surfing Museum)

One of these minishows recounts the evolution of the board itself from the 4,500-year-old Peruvian reed Caballitos through the massive redwood planks introduced to California in 1911 by Duke Kahanamoku, through the fiberglass, foam and shortboard revolutions, to the stealth-tech guitar-pick boards of today. Another details the intermingled histories of '60s surf culture and L.A.'s resin-huffing Finish Fetish art community, including Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price, Peter Alexander, Robert Irwin and Laddie John Dill. One documents the unlikely intersection of surfing, psychedelia, and graphic design in the works of Haight-Ashbury poster artist and Zap cartoonist Rick Griffin and album-cover hall-of-famer John Van Hammersveld, who designed the poster for the classic 1965 documentary The Endless Summer. Yet another collects the most powerful examples of such documentary footage in order to convey the understanding of surfing as an art form unto itself. Upstairs, the popular history of surfing pre-Gidget is mapped out in newspaper etchings from the mid-19th century, luminous woodcuts from the early 20th century, oil paintings, photographs and trophies. The survival of surf iconography in the lowbrow tradition is suggested by the frontal inclusion of a life-size fiberglass mannequin of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth next to his Surfite custom vehicle — one of a series of deceptively frivolous single-passenger designs from the early '60s. But, as with most of these potentially powerful curatorial premises, the thread is missing large bits and is scrambled by ill-conceived and downright sloppy installation.

The boards themselves, for example, are presented everywhere — dangling from the ceiling, crammed into stairwells, tucked behind video monitors, piled ignominiously up against the mezzanine balcony rails in the main gallery. It was most disturbing to find beautiful and iconic artifacts like Duke's personal board from 1924 stacked into an impromptu lean-to. The casual deployment of these visually and historically engrossing objects, while frankly lame-assed traditional visual art objects clog the wall space, salon-style, is a baffling missed opportunity at directing the public's attention to their inherent aesthetic excellence. If the large central gallery had been given over to boards alone, hung vertically, centered just above eye level, with text panels adjacent instead of lying on the floor or missing altogether, it would not only have displayed the material in a respectful, advantageous, coherent and informative manner, but the space itself would have taken on a sublime, cathedral-like architecture that might hint at the unique, expansive sensibility that inspires the work.

THIS KIND OF CURATORIAL FOCUS COMES and goes throughout “Surf Culture.” A group of paintings and photographs in a corner of the main gallery detailing a letter from Ed Ruscha to the editor of a surf magazine (concerning a painting by Rick Griffin and finally summarized as a sort of pathetic Rothko/ UFO simulator ride by painter Chris Wilder) would be a wonderful surprise in a Bergamot Station gallery, but is utterly lost among the flotsam here. The Finish Fetish précis is more effectively isolated, but a survey of contemporary surf-related art is broken up, missing big chunks and diluted with second-rate work.

A 240-page catalog — due any minute — promises to alleviate the incoherence. Armed with the half-dozen thoughtful and enlightening essays and timelines by curators Tyler Stallings and Craig Stecyk, anthropologist Ben Finney, Gidget stalker Deanne Stillman and others, an astute viewer will be able to pick out the multiple strains from the dissonant mix. In addition, an extensive program of films, lectures, performances and workshops helps to flesh out the core curriculum. In spite of this, the exhibit succumbs to the too-common museological version of Bad Simulator Syndrome. “Surf Culture” unintentionally displays the same claustrophobic evocation of the gap between real experience and its depiction — almost the exact opposite of the light touch this subject deserves. Transcendently bad simulator rides are surprising anomalies. Rambling, overworked museum shows, unfortunately, are not. Curator dudes need to chill out and learn not to try so hard.

SURF CULTURE: The Art History of Surfing | At the LAGUNA ART MUSEUM, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach | www.lagunaart museum.org | Through October 6

LA Weekly