Skate It or Hang It!?: The Evolution of Skateboard Art at the Museum of Design Atlanta featured some fantastic examples of skateboard visual culture. Full disclosure, though: I am a skateboarding outsider. My only encounter with skate culture has been my big brother’s brief attempt to hang out with the older neighborhood kids who dicked around in cul-de-sacs doing ollies before sneaking off to smoke stolen cigarettes. Other than that, it has always seemed an unattainable hobby to me. It is a world that requires physical participation in order to understand its nuances—each of the artists displayed at MODA were both skaters and designers.
Normally I would not casually detail how little I know about the subject I’m writing about. But the thing about this show is, I’m exactly the person to whom MODA is attempting to appeal. This exhibition is designed as a kind of Skateboarding 101; scattered throughout the exhibit, handsome typography and graphics explain artistic processes, historical tidbits, and fun facts about skating. A touch-screen display allows the viewer to select a trick, or skating maneuver, and a video clip pops up with a performance of it. It’s fun and flashy, and may be as close to skateboarding culture as I will ever get, unless I develop an inkling to pick up a deck myself.
The peppy cleanness and educational nature of the show was intermittently helpful and distracting: helpful in that I was better informed and, because of the organized layout, less overwhelmed by the unfamiliar imagery, but distracting because the show is self-conscious of its squareness. Though skateboarding now appears in Mountain Dew commercials and earns lots of money, the sport and its artistic influences began in an underground environment and has maintained that counter-cultural attitude despite becoming middle-aged. Due to that background, the exhibition felt rather sanitized.
Most of the work in Skate It stands up to the questionable curatorial choices, however. Lengthy blurbs explain the artists’ significance, most of which is a list of the companies they’ve worked for, exemplifying the corporate feel of both the exhibition and modern skateboarding. Michael Sieben, who wrote a thoughtful photo essay about the show for Vice, acknowledges the shift in skate culture by displaying a crumpled, jaundiced rejection letter from Powell Skateboards from 1999, around the time skating was transitioning into the mainstream.
His other work proves that even to an outsider, skateboarding art can be accessible and interesting. He only had two decks mounted, but his screen prints and paintings gracefully translate skate art’s symbolism and cartoonish stylization into fine art without losing its playfulness. Peak, Artifact, and Ramp Dweller expand a key element of skating, the ramp, into a loveable sidekick by personifying it as a googly-eyed creature while alluding to the ramp’s cultural importance as a gathering spot for skaters. Ramp Dweller shows one of Sieben’s trademark characters—identifiable by its balloon-like head, orbs for eyes, and arms stretched out long and thin—sitting on the ground to hug the ramp like a best-loved toy. The top panel of the diptych Blue River Black River mimics this gesture, as a fuzzy critter wraps his gangly arms around a mountain fragmented into blue and yellow diamonds.
Lance Mountain takes a childlike approach with his art as well, though his veers more toward an Art Brut style—kind of like how children in horror movies are the creepiest. A couple of Mountain’s rough stick-figure drawings splash against monochromatic red, blue, or black backgrounds, though the more eerie image is a simple woodburning of a kid’s drawing of a sun, personified with an unsmiling face. A phrase that may have been stamped on the wood originally accompanies his amoeba-looking design, saying simply: “Fragile.”
A few of his other works added a playful sense of youth that aligns with adolescent tendencies. The figures are reminiscent of Keith Haring’s cartoons, as if Haring’s Radiant Baby had grown up into a teenage skate punk. One of these flaunts a particularly defiant message as Mountain’s figure seems to be running across the slatted wood canvas, almost like he’s going streaking. A thought bubble protrudes from his head which reads, “Someone once told me: You are only young once, but you’re immature forever. I took it as a compliment.” The earnest bravado in this statement summarizes the intent in a lot of skateboard art. It recognizes juvenility as something at once rebellious and harmless, that can challenge mainstream culture as it builds its own subculture.
MODA was perhaps overambitious in curating this show. Considering that their past exhibitions have been about chair design and the next show features bridal fashion, with Skate It or Hang It!? it seems that they are trying to access an unfamiliar audience. Because MODA is aware that they are in novel territory, they compensate for the audience’s presumed inexperience with skateboarding culture by presenting the art in easy-to-swallow, organized, and hyper-informational doses. Had they trusted the viewer to feel out the art for themselves, however, and adhered to skate art’s busy style in the displays, it wouldn’t have felt so forced. The actual art was expressive and informative, and a hell of a lot more satisfying to learn from than an infographic. If one can compartmentalize the exhibition, visually, to distinguish the field-trip-style presentation from the evolution of skateboard art that the museum intends to focus on, then it is well worth seeing.
Skate It or Hang It!? will remain up at the Museum of Design Atlanta through September 16, 2012. The museum is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 10AM to 8PM, Saturdays from 10AM to 5PM, and Sundays from noon to 5PM.