Blunt: Inspiration in Transition
Skateboarding as we know it today was popularized in the 1950s by surfers looking for a way to surf when the waves weren’t cooperating. This “land surfing” hinted at an early ingenuity that has become a pivotal aspect of skater culture. Daniel Pfalzgraf, the curator at the Carnegie Center for Art and History, tells me there is a connection between the creativity inherent in skating and making art. They share a poetic sensibility—that is, both activities require the user to see the materials available to them in a new way. This is part of the impetus for Blunt: Inspiration in Transition, the exhibition currently on display at the Carnegie Center for Art and History.
In the same way that a handrail becomes an obstacle to grind or slide on, materials in Blunt are questioned and repurposed. In the hands of Joseph Minek, photo paper and chemistry yield ethereal images that on first glance look more like paintings than photographs. For animator Lori Damiano, pieces of paper are painstakingly manipulated to move characters through the worlds she creates for them. In another part of the gallery, Leon Washere’s videos are created by printing black and white stills from classic skate videos, hand-painting and reanimating them.
Other artists, who initially seem more traditional, toy with subverting expectations through their imagery. Louisville artist Matthew McDole reduces typical “bad boy” imagery to its fundamental components: bottles labeled poison, daggers, crosses, and portraits of cult leaders. Even here, however, subversion comes not from the use of crass imagery, but rather the pleasing ambiguity and humor that it fosters: one has to ask oneself how seriously to take the simple slope of a beautifully rendered backside.
Though aesthetically similar for its high contrast and stark line work, Lacey Baker’s paintings of roses in various states of decay approach the same juxtaposition from another direction. They instead toy with an under-handed prettiness—their imagery shows superficial femininity on the verge of expiration. Baker, who was called “one of the best skaters on the planet” by Rolling Stone, has long been a vocal supporter of women in this male-dominated sport. The graphic designs Baker creates for boards, like the floral examples seen at the Carnegie, simultaneously recognize women as outsiders in a historically outsider sport while giving them a visual presence within it.
Many of the descriptions accompanying the work in Blunt talk about the artists’ “D.I.Y.” processes. While this is periodically demonstrated in predictable ways through lo-fi techniques, what is more palpable is a literal interpretation of “doing it yourself”—as in alone. While D.I.Y. can suggest giving something a college try—without the proper training or equipment— Blunt evidences a strong control of technique, even as it explores material possibility. It is the sort of control that only comes with long hours of exercising one’s skills.
When Pfalzgraf talks about his experience getting into skateboarding, he says, “it was something that could just as easily be done on my own as it is with a group of friends… The best part was the pure satisfaction of accomplishment through practice, which became its own reward.”
On a far wall, Jared Steffensen’s prints of repeating skatepark furniture, such as quarter-pipes, float on backgrounds of pale pink and blue. The condensed repetition renders the images themselves abstract while on the same wall hang his two sculptural works, Pop Shuv and Kick Flip, which create a concrete visual representation of the skateboard moves they’re named for. Pop Shuv is made from two pink skateboard-shaped pieces of wood connected by what looks like an unnaturally curved third board--a sort of monochromatic rainbow that bridges the two positions one would find themselves in were they actually skating on these boards. Nearby Kick Flip demonstrates the mid-air rotation of this move by slicing the center of an oblong board and incrementally rotating each slice to show the complete turn. These sculptures communicate the physical motion of skating in a way that brings the work to life. Beyond the cleverness of the idea, there’s a machine-perfect geometry to Steffensen’s work that is far from home-spun. One is as impressed by the precise execution of such a complex idea as they are by the idea itself. Though D.I.Y. may be the last description that comes to mind when looking at these works, there is a sort of performance to them that whispers, “Look what I can do.” The sort of proclamation that comes after hours of private practice.
In addition to the shared affinity for resourcefulness between the arts and skateboarding, Blunt is also a celebration of the New Albany Flow Park. Construction on the new skatable public art project coincided with the opening of the show. This collaboration between the museum and the city bodes well for the idea that museums could be a cultural center for a wider segment of the public than they have historically been. At the same time, for a culture that has long seen its own authenticity as being at least partly derived from its existence on the fringe of the mainstream, it’s hard not to wonder what impact this stamp of approval will have on the very art it celebrates.
Pfalzgraf notes that there exists an “uncomfortable balance between acceptance and authenticity,” when a fringe culture gains mainstream success, such as when skateboarding became part of the Olympics. Presumably the same can be said of outsiders being exhibited in museums, though in both cases one could also argue that acceptance leads to proper valuation of the work and that payment sustains its creation, whether it’s skating or art. Beyond even the promise of payment, though, is the possibility that through inclusivity new boundaries can be identified and broken. That there will always be another frontier, and there will always be artists toeing its edge. One is invited to think that the ingenuity behind D.I.Y. movements, rather than meaning for the novice, means quite the opposite: refined. It is perhaps through the honing of one’s craft, rather than eschewing acceptance, that authenticity is rendered.
Blunt: Inspiration in Transition is on display at The Carnegie Center through September 28, 2019.
The Carnegie Center is located at 201 E. Spring Street, New Albany, IN 47150 and is open Monday through Saturday 10:00 AM-5:30 PM.
Guest Contributor to Ruckus
Jared Steffensen, image courtesy of The Carnegie Center.
Matthew McDole, image courtesy of The Carnegie Center.