Interviews, Surf cultureWhat Is Surf Art? The Ben Cook Interview
“My work is often too low-brow for the fine art world, and too high-brow for the surf world”
Full time artists are hard to come by, just like professional surfers. It takes a lot of talent, drive and tenacity to earn a living over the course of one’s working life solely from creating art. Surf art, even more so. Ben Cook is one such artist, and he’s one who happily, dissentingly, hangs the label of “surf art” on his work.
I’ve known him for a decade now, give or take, although I first came across his work in 2008 when a series of his pieces was exhibited at Cornwall’s Eden Project as part of a programme around sustainability in surfing. The artworks were instantly familiar; foam, fiberglass, resin and thin strips of plywood (the foam and resin were the early versions of bio foam and bio-resin), but they weren’t surfboards. Instead, the materials had been reimagined, with swell lines of stingers stacked up in a foam rectangle, or stringers curved through the foam in different ways, creating beautiful shapes. The outside edge of each piece was shaped to the profile of a surfboard’s rail, and had been glassed. I was fascinated by the concept. I met Ben a couple of years later and we were introduced. The surf community can be a small place where we live, particularly if you move around its cultural fringes. We’ve known each other ever since, and I’ve enjoyed bearing witness to Ben’s evolving, sometimes surprising, and always thought-provoking, projects that provide observations and artistic comment on current surf culture.
I meet Ben near his local beach one day this summer. We set off walking, on a looping route around the low headland that separates his local break from the larger bay that it sits within. Ben leads, following a path familiar to him from daily dog walks. His dog passed away suddenly and unexpectedly a few months previously, and this is the first time that he’s walked this route since. I ask him about how, as a formally trained and critically acclaimed artist, he came to accept and adopt the “surf art” label, and what it really means.
“In the fine art world I’m being a bit of a devil’s advocate by calling myself a surf artist. I had such a strong critical reputation in my previous working life that it’s a bit of a shock for people to hear me describe myself as a surf artist, because their perception of what a surf artist is or does doesn’t fit with their view of an intellectual art practice. In a way, that’s good. I have to try and place it in such a way, that I’m not doing what other people have done, or following a well-trodden path.”
It strikes me that being an artist is, in many ways, a rebellious act. Artists and professional artists have always existed, historically as entertainment for those wealthy enough to patronize the arts, but that staying true to the path of being a professional artist goes against the prescribed societal norm. So for Ben to challenge the structures of the established art world is doubly rebellious. “You’ve got to rebel against everything, as far as I’m concerned”, Ben says as we round the corner of the parish church, “Don’t, as an art community, tell people that “everything is art” and that you can do whatever you want, and then say “except, surf art, or anything about skateboarding, because that’s not really art”. The challenge as an artist is then to make those interests and those influences relevant not just to the communities that’s inspired them, but to everyone.” Fortunately, as surfing and skating have matured, so too have their participants and there are now people who surf or skate, or who used to surf or skate, who are now in positions of power within art institutions. The desire to see those interests represented is present in the viewing public, and in those who hold the keys, make the decisions, and fund the arts. But, not every gallery director or art collector is a current or former surfer. Far from it. So it can’t be easy being a full-time artist, laboring under a niche label?
“You appeal by making art universal. It’s the old “glocal” global local thing. The (non-geographical) “local” issue or problem surrounding damaging the environment is one specific to surfers to do with plastics and neoprene and all of that kind of crap, but on a global scale the damage that it’s doing affects us all.” It’s an appropriate moment to mention the environment, as we turn into a field above the rocky beach that’s been left fallow, and has exploded into a riotous cacophony of colourful wildflowers. Artists often use their work to make a political statement, and Cook is no stranger to this, but more often than not his statements are environmental, highlighting the toxic nature of the materials often used in the manufacture of surf equipment, or water pollution.
His work with signs have specific written statements and messages, and he points out that these too are designed for universal “glocal” appeal. “They’re surf sayings that have a specific meaning to surfers but if you just read those phrases and think about them more generally then they’re also often aphorisms and you can apply them to talk about universal subjects.” I admit to him that I’d only ever viewed them through the narrow lens of being a surfer – seeing his “You Are A Shit Surfer” A-board placed at one of the region’s most popular surfing beaches right where one of the region’s most polluted rivers cuts the beach and empties into the line-up every time a brown slick spread through the waves after rainfall and a sewage alert pinged on my phone. But now I see it also as a tongue in cheek poke at every one of us who carry our boards past that spot on our way from the car park with a misplaced sense of our own surfing abilities. It just depends on who is looking at it. “That’s what I’m doing” Ben tells me, “I’m trying to take surfing from an esoteric subculture, and apply the passions that that imbues in surfers, to use it to talk about issues that affect everybody. “There will always be another wave” is a surf saying that every single human on this planet lives by now, in the context of a pandemic. It’s gone from a message of hope for surfers to being the complete opposite for a lot of people, as a message of dread. It’s not me changing these things.”
“Some people buy my abstract pieces to do with neoprene because they’re interested in abstract painting.” Ben’s talking now, a we stand on a low bluff above the rocky beach watching the wind rip apart the small short period swell, about the series that he’s working on at the moment. He’s revisiting the use of old, discarded wetsuits, as a collage material. “Those collectors aren’t interested in surfing! They’re interested in things like abstract painting as an expanded practice, which is what I used to be interested in – how you can make an abstract painting using the same visual literacy, but you’re not using paint. And that comes out of when painting as a practice, as it has been several times throughout the twentieth century, was sidelined (or was attempted to be sidelined) as irrelevant, as opposed to conceptual art. It’s not anymore, and that’s a good thing. Everything’s acceptable in the art world – except surf art!” We are talking beyond the realms of painting and sketching now. I’m not particularly familiar with the intricacies of the art world once it starts sub-dividing down into categories, schools and movements. I ask Ben to go into more detail: “In this case, the materials are abstract” he explains to me, “Say you get a wetsuit and cut it up, it stops being a wetsuit. It’s an abstract piece of material that has got marks on it. So you can start using those marks and repurposing the whole aesthetic. Somebody’s designed it and sewn it together for a very specific purpose – to enable surfers to keep warm in the water and to move freely – so there’s different thicknesses of neoprene and different ways of joining and bonding it together. All of these can be seen as mark-making techniques from a craft. That interests me as well, the whole craft around surfing – surfboard making and so on. How can you re-appropriate that in a conceptual art way?”
He’s right, of course. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, or art material in the case of Cook’s neoprene collages. And the craft of surfboard shaping is sculptural art (at least) that surfers have long championed whilst suppressing because of the desire for surfboards to be affordable. Surfboards, in particular, blur the line between craft and art.
“I’m interested in craft, but I’m not interested in the parameters of craft that craftspeople sometimes put upon themselves.” The world of arts and crafts, it seems, loves a label, and I’m starting to understand that it’s in Cook’s nature to interrogate and challenge labels. “That comes from having to have the object or the thing that you’re making has to have a purpose and has to do a job” he explains, “I’ve never settled on a definition of craft, but it’s often cited as being something like “craft is applying what we know, and fine art is pursuing what we don’t know”. Fine art is more about experimentation and expression that don’t really fall into craft, but then people are experimenting with surfboard design. All of these boundaries are blurred. I do think that exploring these ideas between craft and fine art, and surfing as an art even, and making surf art, are well worth exploring. Those are the things that drive my practice.”
I’m interested in Ben’s practice, because it is so varied. From presenting the component materials of a surfboard or wetsuit in completely new forms, through the word play of his signs, “surf flower’ collages with each petal a picture of a surfboard to highlight the toxic paradox of our equipment, “painting” with surf wax, through to a series of traditional pencil sketches of surf spots. Those sketches were captivating to the local surf community, because the drawings didn’t show the actual surf spot, but instead the last thing that a surfer might see before getting a glimpse of the sea. They captured the moment of maximum anticipation, but were depictions of things like the back wall of a surf lifesaving club, or the parking machine on the side of a surf shop. It wasn’t all boardwalks and sand dunes, but because none of the pieces were named they invited intense study from surfers keen to recognise every “main” surf spot on the Cornish coast.
“When I first moved down here, I thought that the last thing I was going to do was make art about surfing. It’s too much of a cliché. But then I couldn’t stop myself, because I was looking around and getting so much inspiration from it. If you think about what we think of when we think of surf art, we think of a painting or a drawing of a figure in a barrel on a perfect wave. I’m not knocking the literal depictions of surfers and surfing that most people think of as surf art, but they don’t inspire me and they don’t inspire me to surf, or to make art similar to that. What inspires me to make the art is to try, from my own point of view, to make art that the feeling that surfing gives you deserves. The past time of surfing, to me, has such incredible influence on my life, on our lives, and on the lives of so many people who surf, that surely it deserves a more complicated investigation into what surf art can be?”
That investigation and curiosity led Cook to not only “deconstruct” surfboards and wetsuits, but to also look at the materials used in surfing that are more transferrable to traditional art practice. I’m always thinking “what if I did this, or what if I did that?” We are starting our walk back up the hill from the beach towards our cars when I ask about his use of surf wax as a medium.
“When I first came down here I started using surf wax to draw with, and I thought that it’d be incredibly temporary, that it would just melt or fall off or degrade. But what I found is that fifteen years later a lot of them are exactly as I made them.” I had long assumed that these wax works, often on large black foam and fiberglass “canvasses” were intended to be dynamic – to slowly change over time or even to melt and drip if hung on a wall that got direct sun on a hot day. I thought they were another of Ben’s efforts to push the boundaries of what art, and surf art, is or could be, by creating work that by its very nature was impermanent. But I was wrong. “It’s worrying in a sense because obviously surf wax is another petrochemical product that doesn’t disappear, but also it’s enabled me to revisit that whole process several times and develop it because I know that those things do last. I understand the material more and that’s an exciting thing. No one has ever made paintings out of surf wax. I’m doing something that, as far as I know, nobody else has ever done, which is what I was raised to believe an artist did – to explore things that need to be explored. What can you find? You can find, if you use surf wax, and apply it as a surfer might to a surfboard, but then develop it where you’re maybe tearing bits off and sticking them on, getting out the hairdryer and melting it and pushing it around and rolling it… that it becomes more like the work of Jackson Pollock in the 1950s.”
Discussing the use of novel materials, and the fact that our conversation has looped back to definitions of art and creativity, and the labels that are hung on creative practices so often, opens the door nicely to a question that I hadn’t considered until now, at the gates to the car park of the Chinese restaurant where we’d left our cars to avoid the chaos of the beach lane in high summer. Is it possible to separate art as creativity away from being talented within a particular medium? True to form, Ben’s answer is as quick, considered, and non-conformist as I’d could have hoped for: “Art can be whatever you want it to be, and that’s what we’re taught and led to believe. Very few people take that opportunity, but that’s what inspired me in the first place about art. You can do what the fuck you want, so why do a lot of people decide they’re going to get some paints and some brushes and a stretched canvas, and sit down and paint a landscape that’s been painted a thousand times before? That’s fine if you want to do that. I’m not knocking that. But that isn’t my idea of what art should be, and it isn’t anything like what inspires me every day to think about making new artwork.
With that, we get into our cars, cross the main road, and drive a few minutes inland to Ben’s home and studio. His studio is their double garage; at Christmas time when so many homeowners across western world cover the outsides of their homes with gaudy fairy lights and illuminated models of Santa Claus, it is strung with white fairy lights spelling out the phrase “Save The Waves”. If there’s an opportunity to subvert popular or surf culture and make a statement, then this artist is unlikely to let it pass by. We have a cup of tea in the family living room – a large double height extension on the side of the historic cottage that was built by the previous owner, an opera singer and music teacher, as a classroom and practice space. Built for its acoustics, it also provides an incredible gallery setting for the current owner’s work. The walls of this space are ever-evolving, as Ben hangs new work before it goes off to be exhibited, or takes old pieces out of storage to enjoy afresh. He was advised long ago to always keep the first of a series or the original of one-off works, so whilst his work is exhibited, sold and collected, the best collection belongs to the artist himself. It’s an amazing space to stand and soak in over fifteen years of surf art. We move out to the studio so that I can se what he’s working on at the moment. The garage has a surfboard rack and bikes inside the door, with the other half a dedicated, dusty work space. There’s a window in the back wall, misted with cobwebs because it’s hard to reach over the workbench covered in artists tools and ephemera, which looks out over a field of summer wheat. On the opposite wall is a large “canvas” in progress – a panel covered with different pieces of neoprene that Ben tells me will eventually depict a town on the Cornish coast, with a fishing harbour, taped seams as the higgledy-piggeldy lanes and roads that characterise the historic coastal settlements around here, and a zipper train track. We talk about the arc of his career to date, and how he’s found himself circling back to the found paintings concept. Twenty years ago when he lived and worked in Manchester in the UK’s north west, a large city with a strong industrial heritage that’s probably further metaphorically from the rural south westernmost county that he now calls home than it is geographically, Cook was an established fine artist and art school lecturer. His studio was on the top floor of an old textile mill – Manchester was the world’s first industrialised city and it grew off the back of textile production – and he began stretching and painting on cheap fabric, often purchasing his “canvases” from reject fabric shops. That work progressed to the point where he stopped painting on the fabric, instead stretching and repurposing fabric that had been misprinted, such as material for football kits with a team’s colours and patterns that, as an ink had run out or as a crease or fold went through the machine, had imperfections such as wobbles or breaks in the pattern or strange colour bleeds. Cook saw these as painterly marks rather than imperfections, and presented them as such. “I called them Found Paintings in reference to the “objet trouvé” trend in the British art world that saw contemporary artists taking found objects and exhibiting them, as-is, in a gallery setting, however they’re works that I’ve had some authorship over, re-shaping, stretching and re-presenting them as paintings. I was a painter and at that time I still considered myself a painter, so it was up to the person looking at the work to decide whether what they were looking at was a painting or not”.
Two decades on, it is a technique that he has inadvertently returned to using discarded wetsuits, creating his “neoscapes”, rather than rejected football jersey material.
“I think that I deliberately put it all away in my mind, and the work in storage, in order to reinvent myself in the south west. I’ve just realised that this year is the 20th anniversary of the peak of making and exhibiting the found paintings. It’s interesting to me that subconsciously the ‘old’ work has forced its way into the surf art.”
Whilst there are countless artists around the world creating work that’s inspired by surfing, and many whose artwork is being exhibited in mainstream fine art and contemporary galleries, Ben Cook is one of the few of the latter who says that it’s surf art. It’s fascinating that as somebody who has spent their working life questioning and challenging the accepted path, and defying labels and being pigeon-holed, his most successful efforts to push back against the expected norm have been achieved by willingly labelling his work. Surf culture is certainly richer for having an established artist like Ben plant his flag on this side of the line in the sand, and the established fine art world is also no doubt more interesting as a result.
Ben’s Neoscapes, A frame posters and prints are being exhibited at Circle Contemporary Gallery, Cornwall, as part of an exhibition running from mid-September onwards. You can view his work on instagram at @bencooksurfart and see more as well as purchase prints at www.bencooksurfart.co.uk.