In 1993 the “Kustom Kulture” exhibition at the Laguna Beach Art Museum revved art world engines, opening the throttle for the Kustom car, motorcycle, surf culture and related to drive into cultural consciousness. This July, the Huntington Beach Art Center presents “Kustom Kulture II,” a twenty-year anniversary tribute to the original exhibition. Kustom Kulture II hits full speed with Von Dutch, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Robert Williams, Rick Griffin, Basil Wolverton, Margaret Keane, Don Ed Hardy, Billy Gibbons, and others, providing a contemporary look at Kustom Kulture. Kustom Kulture II is curated by Southern California native, C.R. Stecyk whose life was portrayed in the 2001 award-winning documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, and Paul Frank, originator of Paul Frank Industries and creator of Julius the Monkey.
Greg Escalante (interviewed for CARTWHEEL by Keith Dugas) is an Orange County-based curator and art collector who is also owner of Copro Gallery in Santa Monica and co-founded Juxtapoz magazine (with artist Robert Williams). Greg helped organize the first “Kustom Kulture” exhibition while he was serving on the board at The Laguna Art Museum. In a lecture and slide presentation in 2011, Greg spoke about working on the first “Kustom Kulture” show:
I got a lot of enthusiasm going for it [at The Laguna Art Museum]. Bolton Colburn (museum director) and Craig Stecyk (curator) hashed it out. What we wanted to do was to give these unsung heroes in the art world their day in the art museum. Von Dutch (the car pin striping madman), Ed “Big Daddy” Roth (a childhood hero and also a pin striper), and also Robert Williams. But, there was Rick Griffin, who was a surf artist from surfer magazine. He had passed away and we went to his wife who controlled the estate, but we couldn’t explain [our idea] to her so he just became a smaller part of the show. It became this huge exhibition that traveled to three venues in Seattle and Maryland. It got written up in the NY Times, The Washington Post and the LA Times. We had a really good time putting on this show, it was a huge success, and we were able to bring attention to these heroes from our childhood.
I spoke to Greg during the final stages of preparation for the “Kustom Kulture II” exhibition, which opens in just a couple weeks. He explained why he decided to revisit the original idea twenty years later, and hinted at some of the treasures he has in store for us this time around.
Why did you decide to put together a second “Kustom Kulture” show? Don’t you think this theme has been overdone in recent years?
We decided to do the show because this young hip t-shirt designer named John Paul Olson pointed out that it was going to be twenty years since the first one. Not everyone his age was lucky enough to have seen it. He was 5 years old at the time and he can still remember being carried on his babysitter’s shoulders down the hill from his house and touring the show. This experience affected him for the rest of his life in a very creative and positive way. John Paul stressed the importance of revisiting for a new generation. He then met up with famous Harley sculptor/collector Jeff Decker and they double-teamed C. R. Stecyk and me to do this anniversary show exhibit. Stecyk and I had already done the first Kustom Kulture exhibition with Bolton Colburn and Susan Anderson at the Laguna Art Museum in 1993, and we were heading in new directions, but the support and demand for this exhibit were hard to ignore. Finally John Paul promised us funding and Kustom Kulture II was on.
Yes, this theme has been done quite a bit but mostly in little galleries and like a specific facet, like a hot rod art show, surf art, Tiki art, graffiti, Gothic, big eye but you never see them all together and presented in a scholarly way, placing the movement in its proper place in the history of art. This is what a scholarly museum show does.
I was going to mention that–answer my own question–which of course this show would be done best by the original curators and producers, in a museum setting. Having you and Stecyk, original curator of the Kustom Kulture exhibition, involved is key. And the best possible reason for doing the show is to introduce the original Kustom Kulture artists to a whole new generation, so they know the roots of the movement.
How did you decide on the curators for the show? I understand that C.R. Stecyk curated the first “Kustom Kulture” show, but why choose Paul Frank, originator of Paul Frank Industries and creator of Julius the Monkey, as a curator? What does he bring to the table?
It’s practically an unknown fact that Paul Frank was profoundly influenced by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. As a young man his interest brought him to the original “Kustom Kulture I” exhibition and panel discussion. He loved everything about Big Daddy–his aesthetic, his bigger than life personality, the think-tank like environment he created to run his apparel industry. I knew this as I am friends with Paul but hardly anyone else does.
Paul has a huge following of the younger generation that appreciates his version of the Kustom Kulture aesthetic. So as far as Stecyk and I could see there was no better choice than Paul Frank. His support and participation was essential to the project and without him joining the team, I doubt we would be doing this exhibition.
How will the artwork in the “Kustom Kulture II” show differ from the art in the original “Kustom Kulture” show? Will there be the same artists in the show?
There are the three main anchors – Von Dutch, Ed Roth, and Robert Williams in the show, with almost completely different pieces than displayed in KK I. And there are other artists that were in the first “Kustom Kulture” show. What’s different about “Kustom Kulture II” is there is a representation of the movement’s reach spreading around the world. This influence is represented by photographers Michael McCabe and Nash Yoshi with photos from New York, Germany, Japan, and China. Another new addition is Margaret Keane. She has had a tremendous influence on a new school of artists incorporating the “big eye” element into their work. The first time I noticed this was back in about 1992 when Frank Kozik depicted Charles Manson with big eyes, Coop was creating parallel work. Recently I learned Vicki Berndt was doing ironic versions of Keane back in 1990. Later Mark Ryden, Audrey Kawasaki and others utilized the same technique to create mesmerizing paintings. We want to examine this phenomenon and give Margaret her proper place in art history.
Can you talk a little about C.R. (Craig) Stecyk? He is kind of an enigma. Few people actually know all his many facets relating to the art world. People might know him for his involvement in the Dogtown scene [Co-founder of Zephyr Surf Shop, his photographs are seen in the Dogtown films, he is also known for his surfer graffiti tags from that era. Stecyk was featured in the Art In The Streets exhibition at MOCA in 2011], but can you talk about why he is an important figure in the Kustom Kulture movement?
Craig is an enigma for sure. There is no one in the world that knows more about so many sub-genres in art and other parts of our culture that just border on art like skateboarding, surfing, car culture, gang, rap, hotrod, customized, low rider and vintage bicycles. Craig is also a renowned artist in his own right. I heard Jeffrey Deitch describe him as one of his favorite in the “Art of The Streets” exhibit saying Craig crosses over and brings together cultures. Craig is probably the prime mover in the Kustom Kulture movement because he was the only curator who had the knowledge that could make the show come out at such an intellectual and ambitious level back then. Right here and now I have to mention Bolton Colburn, past director of Laguna Art Museum (home of the original Kustom Kulture Iexhibition) and Susan Anderson the other curator and the one that coined the term “Kustom Kulture.” This was a team effort and this show would not have been such a huge success without all three of them.
Since the “Kustom Kulture I” show in 1993, the popularity of so-called Kustom Kulture art and artists has exploded. For example, the career of Robert Williams has skyrocketed, with his work selling for upwards of $50,000 to $250,000 and he was included in the 2010 Whitney Biennial. The art of hot-rods, underground comix and surf & skateboard art has become completely mainstream. Can you talk about this phenomenon?
Well it’s obvious–we all grew up with this generation of art that really moved us. Of course it was going to gain in recognition, value and importance as time went by, but how? Enlightened people were always into it but the movement never gained traction until Kustom Kulture. This show had it all, an amazing historical to contemporary total eye candy show, a readable scholarly catalogue, endorsements by Walter Hopps, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top and Herb Fishel, then-executive director of General Motors. From this show on the gallery and museum shows were changing the art world. MoMA put on a Juxtapoz film festival. Instead of being hugely intellectual, boring, ugly, fake and frustrating, the art world was becoming visually exciting and conceptually fun.The culmination was Jeffrey Deitch’s “Art in the Streets“ show at MOCA that broke all attendance records. exciting and conceptually fun.
Are Bolton Colburn and Susan Anderson involved in “Kustom Kulture II” at all? If so, how?
They have both acted as consultants on this show with very good suggestions and we are using all. Bolton found us this amazing Von Dutch piece that really is the missing link, proof of the high art intertwined with low. The first exhibition we only had stories: Walter Hopps, Ferus gallery and the finish fetish. Bolton unearthed the smoking gun!
What do you see happening in the future for this style of art? Do you see it evolving into something new? A hybrid? Or do you see it staying the same – keeping a “retro” look to it?
Well, it was very liberating when it started and generated a freedom of ideas that wasn’t fitting into the tradition. Every movement plays itself out and this has gone on for 20 years, which is longer than a lot movements. Juxtapoz Magazine is a forum for new fun ideas in art that is very readable and entertaining, satisfying a need in art that I don’t see going away anytime soon. Also the biggest museums tend to lag tremendously. MoMA didn’t have a Warhol in its collection until like, five years ago and he grew up in their backyard for crying out loud. I really don’t know which way things will go, but I will support and promote the art that excites and blows my mind the most.
There are a huge number of young artists who are influenced by the fathers of Kustom Kulture art. What do you have to say to them? Who are your favorites of the new generation? Do you encourage them, or do you see them as copycats?
I don’t really see them as copycats. Usually if they are, it’s a temporary phase until they find their own way. Many of the new generation don’t know who Robert Williams is, even though he may have had a profound effect on their art. Once they discover him they discover his whole world, and they realize his importance. The same is true about Craig Stecyk being the behind the scenes architect of the skateboard world. I remember a younger surfer seeing the Dogtown film and declaring: everything I am I owe to him and before this film I didn’t even know he existed.
What about the whole overtly commercial aspect of the Kustom Kulture movement? The blatant merchandising–Von Dutch clothing line, Don Ed Hardy, all the surf & skate and hot-rod clothing & product lines. Doesn’t it blur the lines between art & commerce?
It does and I see nothing wrong with this. It gets the word out to a bigger audience, which is really healthy for everyone. And you’re not going to tell me that hi-art world artists like William Wegman, Keith Haring, and Andy Warhol don’t “sell out.” It’s just that no one is going to buy a picture of Ad Reinhardt on a shirt.
Kustom Kulture II
Huntington Beach Art Center
538 Main Street Huntington Beach CA 92648
Opening on Saturday, July 13, 2013, 7pm-9pm.
Closing Reception and Panel Discussion: Saturday, August 24, 2013,6-9pm.