Before the Scene

Art curator Gordon McClelland on his background as a surfer, the elements that make for a great California Scene Painting, and the particular challenges of the form

Light / Dark

Gordon McClelland is the author of 15 books on topics ranging from Rick Griffin to the California Scene Painters. The latter subject is the focus of his feature story in issue 24.1 of TSJ. In addition to collecting and writing about art, McClelland is a lifelong surfer from southern California. While collecting paintings, he began finding works depicting surfers in the Golden State, some of which date back to the 1930s. Interestingly, a number of these artists had no particular interest in documenting surfers or surf culture. Surfing just happened to be a small part of the coastal scene when they arrived at the beach to paint. In looking at their works, there’s no doubt that they portrayed something more candid about surfing than many later works by artists consciously focused on depicting wave-riding. Artists who were not surfers themselves had no reason to make waves (or surf “lifestyle”) appear perfect. Instead, the surf is rendered closer to reality. Here McClelland talks about his own background as a surfer and art collector, the elements that make for a great California Scene Painting, and the particular challenges of the form.

Could you start by explaining what a California Scene Painting is?

On the most basic level, a California Scene Painting is distinct from a landscape painting in that it has to have some human connection—either the presence of people or manmade structures. Lots of landscape paintings don’t have that, so there’s absolutely no sense of time and place. With scene paintings, they have a sense of time and place: you can see surfing in California depicted in the 30s as distinct from the 50s or 60s. In some ways, the greater the sense of time and place, the better.

Art Riley, Playa del Rey, 1957, 22”x 30”, Watercolor on paper, Ken and Jan Kaplan Collection

It’s interesting to hear you say that a sense of time and place is an important element because some of these works—even if they’re more than 50 years old—seem like they could be painted from present day scenes.

Well, this is true of any great art: good ideas will hold up. When you look at a painting, you can tell whether it’s enduring that test of time. Those are the ones that people love. You can see these paintings as being both totally relevant today and also representative of their respective time periods. Not everything manages to function on both of those levels, but really good paintings do. It sounds strange to say but the same work can appear to be from a specific time and place—and also not. That’s the kind of thing that makes the art engaging to the viewer. It can in one sense capture time and place and in another sense it can be timeless because it’s so well composed.

How did you first come across early paintings that depict surfers or surfing?

There weren’t that many paintings done in the fine art world that relate to surf culture. I discovered those because I would be looking for paintings by these artists—like Alexandra Bradshaw or Rex Brandt—and all of a sudden there would happen to be one that had to do with surfing. There’s a lot of surf-related art that revolves around magazines but there’s also some work by fine artists. Some of it goes back to the mid-30’s—like one by Alexandra Bradshaw. She lived in Laguna and painted the beach culture and some of her work had surfboards. But that was by default. With most of these paintings, it wasn’t like these people were surfers. They were just out painting whatever was there. And in some cases there just happened to be surfers. It wasn’t art created as surf-related art. Some of the scene paintings with surfers in them are not the best ones by those artists but they’re still good paintings by recognized artists, which kind of elevates the idea of surf culture being included in art.

Aesthetically, what are you looking for in these paintings that defines good work from bad work?

One things that’s very difficult, to give you an example, is painting human figures with watercolors in a manner that’s consistent with the rest of the painting. In other words, people tend to want to put more detail on the human figures, like their faces. But once you start down that road, you have to make everything else equally detailed. And pretty soon, in attempting to create this highly rendered thing, it just falls apart because it gets too complex and loses the feel that most California watercolor artists were trying to achieve. The painters who were successful painted in a more spontaneous kind of way. They were outdoors and on location. What they would do is get their paintings about three-quarters of the way complete and then take them back to their studios and finish them.

Are you impressed by how accurate the surf-related details in these paintings are, given that many of the artists weren’t surfers?

I’ve seen so many other paintings where the artists quite obviously didn’t know what they were doing. They’ll have the rocker of a surfboard curving one way and the fin on the wrong side. You can just tell they hadn’t given any thought to how a surfboard functions. And I’m generally not interested in those paintings because they’re funky looking. But some painters who didn’t even surf did an amazing job of representing things correctly. A lot of that is because most of these guys were really good painters. In comparison, a lot of the people who were surfers who painted were not.

Rex Brandt, On a Golden Day, circa 1960s, 17-1/2”x 12”, Watercolor on paper, Mark and Jan Hilbert Collection

How did you get into collecting art?

I started taking all kinds of art from California over to Germany, France, and England during the summers while I was studying art history at Cal State Fullerton. I had a little business going back and forth. Later, Rick Griffin and I would take surf trips to Europe and set up exhibitions of his artwork. We’d surf Mundaka, Biarritz, and Jersey Island. We had no time limits so we spent months in the fall getting a lot of surf and catching spots at their best.

What time would this have been that you were taking trips with Griffin to Europe?

That was in the mid-70s, because I remember when we got to London for Rick’s show we stayed in Shepherd’s Bush, and it was right in the middle of the time that punk rock was emerging there. The Clash came to Rick’s opening. They hadn’t even recorded music at that point but they were practicing in the building next to The Round House, where we put on the show. I had no idea who they were back then. The only way we figured it out was that a cinematographer, Dick Pope, who was producing the Griffin art show, was also filming the Clash for the BBC at that time.

Where did you guys have some of your best sessions on those trips?

One fall we were camping out by Seignosse and all of a sudden the surf came up hard. It was overhead and there were perfect A-frames all along the beach. After that session we drove straight down to Mundaka. This was in 1976 and there was hardly anyone in the water. We got down there and it was double overhead and winding down the sandbar. I’d never seen Mundaka that big. We really didn’t have the right equipment, so we got lip-launched a few times, but we had some very memorable sessions there.

For an extended curation of California Scene Paintings from the 1930s-70s, check out issue 24.1 of TSJ