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Dark Down the Lightness

Artist Damian Fulton’s apocalyptic beach scenes.

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If there’s a perfectly tapered A-frame or a sexy cartoon pinup in a Damian Fulton painting, you can bet those forms are counterbalanced with a post-apocalyptic backdrop or imagery of the living dead. Combining such disparate elements in the same composition may seem excessively shrill at first glance. In Fulton’s work, however, these binaries converge to develop an unfeigned commentary on the urban surf  experience. With past exhibits titled “Pathetic Coast  Highway” and “Surfploytation,” one of Fulton’s main projects is to fracture the assumption that surfing is a sunny day at the beach for one and all. As a painter, he looks outside the bubble of surf art and its recurrent imagery of aloha prints, woody wagons, and peeling pointbreaks. “That’s never been my experience,” says the Los Angeles-based painter. “Down here, it’s freaky just getting to the beach.” 

To the city-dwelling surfer, Fulton’s works may present a more truthful portrayal of the obstacles encountered upon heading to the coast. His fascination with this subject grew organically from a childhood spent inland in Southern California, which required him to bike miles to the beach in order to slake his passion for surfing. Fulton has since relocated to El Porto with his wife and four kids. And while the environment lends no shortage of material for addressing his subjects of interest, the high cost of living and his growing family have necessitated an endeavor into commercial art, providing art direction and creating TV commercials for companies such as Mattel, Kraft, and BP. As a result, his passions—painting and surfing—have taken on central importance in maintaining a sense of fulfillment as an adult.

‘‘I’ve been dwelling in Los Angeles for 25 years and yet don’t really feel at home,” he says before admitting that, for all of the grotesque imagery in his works, “luckily, the coast is a constant source of reassurance.”

DOUBLE BARREL, 2011, oil on canvas, 18 x 24 inches
INVITATION TO WISDOM AND FOLLY, 2007, oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches

‘‘My brother Mark, our buddies, and I would ride our single-speed Stingray bikes—towels tied to our handlebars—ten miles to bodysurf at Corona Del Mar, Newport, and Huntington Beach. In the early 1970s, Huntington Beach was a scuzzy place. We would ride right to the pier since that’s where it was happening. You didn’t hassle the locals. You had to avoid the teenagers and biker gangs and anything under the pier. For all those reasons, Huntington was really attractive to us.

During school, I would charge kids a quarter to draw on their shirts or skate decks a la Big Daddy Roth. Whatever cool imagery was happening at the time: the surf-nik, surf-fink vibe, along with hot rods and motorcycles. Since our gang was going to the beach more often, the surf imagery started creeping in. I remember this kneeboarder in school, Mark Gottio, would buy me lunch if I drew cartoons of him in perfect little tubes. During class he would pitch me a dollar or something for a surf drawing.”

MENTOR, 2008, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches
DAWN PATROL, 2010, oil on canvas, 24 x 12 inches

‘‘Don’t get me wrong, I love looking at waves, looking at magazines, and surf videos. But, ultimately, just painting waves doesn’t add anything dramatic that hasn’t been done before. I’m always more fascinated with what’s happening when the city hits the coast. When you fly into L.A. at night, it looks like a giant sea of lights and some massive city slowly melting from its own mass, spilling out into the sea. The only time I ever saw Gidget was on TV, and that’s definitely not the experience of surfing in Southern California. Sometimes I’m out there going through barbed-wire fences and chain-link fences to get to a surf spot, or pushing past certain people to get out into the water. I’m more interested in the process of getting down to the beach. That’s a much bigger influence on my painting than actually surfing.”

‘‘I tend to look at the old school guys for inspiration. I marvel at Howard Pyle, his beautiful pirate paintings along the beach and at sea for Treasure Island. I think of other greats like NC Wyeth and Norman Rockwell’s storytelling in particular.

My own approach to making art is a quest for balance. There’s all this minutiae that comes from making an existence and living in Los Angeles. And there’s so much that comes with being a responsible adult, father, and husband that we can miss out on a lot of the joys we used to experience as kids. When you grow up, you tend to kick to the side the playfulness of doodling and the freedom of expressing yourself as you did when you were a kid without the pressures of life hovering over you. So, for me, making art is not a philosophy, it’s a balance that provides me spiritual, mental, and physical harmony.”

CACOPHONY IN SEA MAJOR, 2006, oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches

[Feature painting: GOLD RUSH, 2007, oil on canvas, 36 x 24 inches]