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Bottoms Up: Full Deck at Springfield Museum of Art

June 3, 2012

Facing the pavement no longer, skateboards adorn the gallery walls of the Springfield Museum of Art in the exhibition Full Deck: A Short History of Skate Art.  Design, painting, and photography cover each board’s surface, with approximately 300 decks from the 1960s to the present on view.  “The skate artist’s aesthetic—raw, passionate, and personal—is energized by a devotion to the act of skating and a DIY embrace of skate culture,” wrote the exhibition curator Carrie Lederer.  “The eye-catching images on the bottom of a skateboard are one of the purest forms if self-expression: highly personal and mostly created without artistic boundaries.”

At first glance, exhibiting skateboards is a radical change to what is typically installed in a fine arts institution.  Ann Fontescue, Executive Director of the Museum, counters that notion.  “Full Deck offers the art of the unexpected and on functional, familiar objects,” she said.  “It’s exciting and really fun when you find art in the world around you.”  Working within the constraints of the format of a skateboard deck, the rest is up to the artist.

A wide-range of original, one-of-a-kind decks, and editioned, manufactured boards are the contributions of contemporary artists and designers in Full Deck, many of whom are skateboarders themselves.  Representations of popular culture are prevalent, including artist Tom Ledin’s series based on the Coen Brother’s film The Big Lebowski.  An illustration of the film’s characters depicted over five boards, the series was produced as a limited edition in 2008; Ledin still receives daily requests from interested buyers. Todd Bratrud’s Giving Tree is a reinterpretation of the cover of Shel Silverstein’s 1964 book of the same name, however the child reaches for a skateboard instead of an apple, falling from a tree, animated in stop frame over several boards.

Social commentary is also dominant.  Artist Chase Tafoya co-created the Positive Movement Alliance (PMA), and depicts the portraits of many worldly figures, including humanitarians like Mother Theresa, and the faces of those effected by injustice, including an anonymous handless child from Africa’s diamond mines.  Through PMA, a percentage of the sale for each board supports various charities around the world.  Tafoya’s renderings are emotionally charged by his subjects in hand-drawn or painted gestures, opposite of the depictions of graphic artist Winston Tseng and his series International Superhero, in which the classic superheroes—Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, and Robin—are depicted in simplified graphics and bright colors.  Each character is represented as an alternate ethnicity from his or her original Caucasian background.

The exhibition showstoppers are the unique, handcrafted pieces.  Lori D.’s original gouache paintings for Toy Machine are exhibited alongside the manufactured boards, demonstrating a trajectory of inception to finished product.  The translation of the artist’s hand to a mass-produced piece helps understand what is gained and lost in production.  Another artist, Kirk Shelton, transformed broken decks into the canvases for his portraits.  The rough wood of the well-used, severed board, along with remnants of original paint and asphalt-filled scrapes only enhance Shelton’s rendering of a police officer peering forward through the shadow of his police hat, or a priest, captured in a smile through a fleshy palette and brushstrokes.

Another striking original series are the oil paintings by Stix and Jones, whose interest in 17th century still life paintings merged with skateboard culture.  Her vanitas subjects, or symbolic representations of mortality, fill each deck with the reoccurring motifs of skulls, burning candles, blooming flowers, and other objects associated with temporality.

Full Deck kicked off in 2010 at its originating institution, the Bedford Gallery at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek, California. The exhibition is timely with a refocus on the business of skateboarding.  The year Full Deck began touring the country, The Wall Street Journal reported on the lucrative business of skate art in the US.  From artworld superstars (including contemporary Takashi Murakami and Pop Art great Andy Warhol) to emerging artists, skateboards are a popular means of artistic expression and experimentation without the same preciousness of a framed painting on canvas in an exclusive gallery.  The $1.3 billion dollar skateboard industry has supported many artists in reaching new audiences and new financial support, as well as a new demographic of potential buyers being able to afford the artwork they are interested in.

Since opening in May, The Springfield Museum of Art has received a positive response from its audiences to Full Deck and is organizing several events this summer through the duration of the exhibition, including a demonstration of skateboarding organized with local businesses Lost Nation of Springfield and Hangar 18 of downtown Dayton.  “This is exactly what the Museum is here for and what we want to be doing along with our arts and culture partners in the greater Miami Valley,” Fontescue said.  Full Deck succeeds in drawing a spotlight to the artistic value of a subculture, and in bringing something new and perhaps a little unexpected into the fine arts.

To learn more about the exhibition, visit the Springfield Museum of Art at 107 Cliff Park Road or visit Deck is on view through September 2, 2012.

Originally published in the Dayton City Paper, July 3, 2012.

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