16 June 2007

If Everybody Had an Ocean: Brian Wilson, an Art Exhibition

Filed under: art, Brian Wilson, If Everybody Had an Ocean, Tate St Ives — Howard @ 10:00 am

If Everybody Had an OceanDESPITE being named from the first five words of Surfin’ USA, this exhibition is not a collection of Beach Boys or Brian Wilson memorabilia or album artwork. It’s not an art show about Brian Wilson or the Beach Boys. Not literally, anyway. It’s an art show inspired by Brian Wilson and about what Brian Wilson inspired in others. It’s a take on contemporary art as seen by the curator, Alex Farquharson, through the ‘prism’ of Brian Wilson. Farquharson spent five years working on this exhibition (it was preceded by his Brian Wilson: An Art Book in 2005), and it is a splendid thing to catch while you can.

If some of that is difficult to follow then you’ll get a sense of what the exhibition is like – some of it is simple and direct and easy to relate to the big man in the middle; much of it is more obtuse and tangential and not easy to ‘get’ at a glance. But don’t let this put you off – the show is small and enjoyable and rewarding for Beach Boys fans of all persuasions.

Tate St Ives

Tate St Ives was opened in 1993 and is a fine building on a compact site (formerly the town gas works) overlooking Porthmeor Beach and the Atlantic Ocean. (If you’re not familiar with St Ives, it’s a small Cornish fishing town located right at the end of the south-west peninsula of England; it was home to an important artist’s colony in the early 20th century.) As the Tate web site says, ‘The focus of the building is a glazed rotunda, its form echoing the base of the demolished gas-holder which formerly occupied the site.’

This is the point of entry to the gallery, and when you visit the exhibition you are greeted with ethereal Beach Boy harmonies (Surf’s Up when I was there) as you climb the steps and walk to the ticket desk.

The entrance mall has two pictures worth catching. Most obvious, to the left of the door opposite the entrance, is the sparkly print by Peter Blake, Our Sweet Love. Based on a great picture of Brian at a recent RFH concert, Peter Blake has sprinkled so-called diamond dust over it to get a warm shimmering effect on the picture. Have a look on for a good reproduction of this. Artist-signed copies of this print (limited run of 75) are still available for a surprisingly affordable £1000 (!). This from the man who gave us the Sgt Pepper and GIOMH album covers.

To the right of the door is a less prominent but very sweet pencil drawing by Daria Wilson of her dad ‘on the beach with hot-rod motifs’.

From here the exhibition guide recommends that you backtrack through the mall into the entrance space and climb the stairs to the Apse on level 3. There are just two paintings here – a rather unusually sombre Bridget Riley, which sets the tone for some of the later pictures, and a painting by Richard Pettibone of BW done in 1975. Set like a small shrine in homage to the man, this tiny postcard-sized painting is a faithful reproduction of the ‘Good Humor’ picture in the Sunflower LP centrefold.

From the Apse we enter the first main room of the exhibition, “Chapter 1: Surf City”. The first thing that strikes you is that the room – as with the others in the gallery – has been decorated with fragments of lyrics, and nearly always the lyrics of Brian’s collaborators. They set a tone for each room and I have to say there’s something satisfying about seeing a verse from Little Deuce Coupe on the wall of an art gallery.

She’s got a competition clutch with the four on the floor
And she purrs like a kitten till the lake pipes roar
And if that ain’t enough to make you flip your lid
There’s one more thing, I got the pink slip daddy

BRNWLSNThe most direct picture in this room is Peter Blake’s Beach Boys, an oil painting from 1964. This could have been an album cover, but maybe not in its time. The rest of the room tries to provide a setting for the early days of California art, and some of the links to BW are less obvious. The series of photographs for a calendar of LA Artists in Their Cars reminds you of the Beach Boys’ car music (and one of the artists is a dead ringer for the 60s-era Van Dyke Parks), and the first of John McCracken’s gleaming, shiny monoliths (Visitor), bright yellow and leaning against the wall, reminds you of a freshly waxed surf board standing in the sun. My own favourite was Kaz Oshiro’s California Souvenir (BRNWLSN). It’s difficult to resist the untarnished optimism of this room.

The next room (“Chapter 2: The Warmth of the Sun”) advances a few years in tone, as we leave behind surf and cars and enter psychedelia. The next McCacken monolith (Dream) is a spiritual white, and the title of the room to my mind hints at the myth of Icarus as much as any classic BB composition. The room has fragments of Smile in it too – Jeremy Glogan’s Smile Shop Door (after Frank Holmes) playfully replicates elements from the original cover around the room (don’t miss the row of smiles laid out by the skirting board!). Sister Corrita Kent’s posters (especially Sea Queen or ‘Enjoy 20/20 Foresight’) catch the period well.

“Chapter 3: It’s So Sad to Watch a Sweet Thing Die” is different from the other rooms; the links to Wilson are less obvious and less direct, but there are still some striking works. There is a third McCracken monolith in this room (Wing), and this time it is black. Fred Tomaselli’s Organism dominates one wall and, echoing the Icarus myth, suggests someone is falling from the sky. There is a score from John Cage for Water Music that hints at some of the wilder elements of Smile, and Jim Shaw’s Beach Boys Weekend uses a cartoon or graphic-novel style to show an empty room with a radio on while a local station has a weekend devoted to the world’s finest pop music. Most disturbing is Brian Calvin’s Over and Over Again, a picture that hints at the emptiness that followed Brian’s most creative period.

A final room, “You’re Like the Lonely Sea”, provides an afterthought. The space is darkened and, in Recorder by Thomas Demand, we see a continuous film loop of a cardboard tape recorder running, whilst a fragment of Bicycle Rider plays hauntingly, over and over again. A trio of paintings by Kaye Donachie explore the dark side of the connection with Charles Manson.

You leave this room out on to the upper terrace, where a huge work by Pae White, The Song of the Day Birds concludes the exhibition. Descend downstairs and the Cornish sky fills the entrance space, like a majestic framed backdrop.

Tate St Ives sky

The catalogue is well worth buying. It comes like a 12 inch LP (remember the Smile souvenir programme?) and is full of goodies – postcards, exhibition poster, pictures of the band and of BW, ‘mosaic prints’ of the artworks, and interviews with the curator, with Brian Wilson (from December 2004), and an interesting essay by David Toop on the music of BW. Just £7.95 and worth every cent. The only thing that is missing is the record, something that could be put right in September when we get the premier of That Lucky Old Sun in London.

Tate St Ives, through to September 23 and then Bordeaux, November 2007 – March 2008


Tate St Ives

Selected images from the show (Guardian)

That Lucky Old Sun




  1. Thanks for the review and these visuals – Brian and the Beach Boys are truly an inspiration to those who listen to “see”what they are saying.

    Comment by Phil Miglioratti — 16 June 2007 @ 4:53 pm

  2. A nice exhibition – I liked ‘LA Artists in Their Cars’ (Joe Goode). Had a great moment chasing my 3 year old round the rotunda while listening to some Pet Sounds…

    Comment by Andrew ("Plinius") — 17 June 2007 @ 5:46 pm

  3. Thanks for the in-depth review, beautifully done. Wish I could be transported to the show from here in sunny California — wouldn’t it be nice!

    Comment by Sylvia Seymour — 1 July 2007 @ 5:26 pm

  4. Amazing story captured superbly with dialogue and pictures that fit perfectly.

    Comment by Derek McCrea — 5 September 2010 @ 6:54 pm

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