The virtue of cool

The subversive side of skateboard culture in ‘PUSH.POP.KICK.’

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Winston Tseng

The art in PUSH.POP.KICK. isn’t what you normally find on the walls of Longmont’s Firehouse Art Center. Loaded with themes of violence, racism, drugs and sex, the skateboard-themed show hangs counterculture on white walls more familiar with the politically correct. It’s not that skate art isn’t wanted or doesn’t belong — it’s just that it doesn’t always fit in.

Skateboarding is entrenched in a history of rule breaking, and its rebellious nature is a big part of the reason that its culture is synonymous with cool — a concept far more complicated than it appears. Purity’s evil twin brother, “cool” is akin to a virtue that carries a far more persuasive influence than morality. Although we are inclined to abide by it, coolness is evasive. To pin it down would be an exercise in futility, and yet skate culture seems to be its perpetual companion.

“Skateboarding is all about you and focusing on what your capabilities are because you don’t have a coach or a set of standards or rules,” says Mark Bueno, the curator of the show, as well as one of its artists. “From the beginning, everything has been invented as it goes. Skaters don’t break the rules; they create them.”

Bueno’s rationale for why skating is so cool is also a working definition of art, which helps explain the link between the two. Part of the reason that art is so entrenched in skating is the physical relationship that a skater has with their board and landscape — there is an obvious inclination to express yourself on the board because the object becomes a part of your dexterity.

It comes as no surprise then that there are a lot of decks in the show and some of the work plays with the physicality of the skating materials themselves. “Sponsored,” a piece made by Bueno, is composed of hundreds of sponsorship stickers collaged into a crisp circle that contrasts with its plywood background. Covered with the clear grip tape that normally coats the topside of a skateboard, the piece presents like refined contemporary art, but subtly challenges the corporate side of a skater’s success.

“‘Sponsored’ is a literal piece, about this one skater and how talented he has become and how wanted he is,” Bueno says. “It’s a jumbled up obfuscation of the skater. The confusion is really interesting to me — to see how you try really hard to succeed and then once you become great then you have all these other people really trying to ride your coattails. Since you’re great they become great because they sponsor you.”

The majority of pieces in the show exhibit the sports’ historic tie to graphic design. These works offer the strongest art in the show, perhaps because they carry the most subversive messages, especially those of racism and of skate culture’s resistance to upholding appearances.

Winston Tseng, a graphic artist working out of New York, contributes a body of work to the show that associates racism with a deep-seated cultural laziness. He confronts racism directly in “I’m Not a Racist” (2015) by literally playing with what happens when we recognize that prejudice is learned and inevitable. Tseng creates alphabet cards that pair ethnic stereotypes with racial slurs and uses them to spell out “I’m not a racist but some of my best friends are.” Within the provocative statement are the individual cards, drawing both aversion and recognition from the viewer. The piece emerges as an orphaned societal trait that no one wants to own, but for which we are all accountable.

“With all [the racial tension] going on in current events — Tseng is addressing it as a graphic comedian,” Bueno says. “He is using his visual talents to comment on really important issues, but making it loose enough to where it is OK to look, OK to question and OK to ask. ‘I’m not a racist,’ you hear that all the time. All the time. And then you hear the unspoken ‘but’ at the end.”

The art in the show makes it clear that political correctness is becoming a tired spin in our cultural conversation, and it only makes sense that skaters, as bastions of counterculture, address uncomfortable topics like racism. In “Disposable Selfies” (2015), Tseng replaces smartphones with the now-retro disposable camera. Ironically, the photos we took on throwaway devices carried more sincerity than the millions of digital pictures we take today. Paired with “I’m Not a Racist,” the work reflects on society’s collective self-consciousness and how it hampers deeper and much needed selfreflection.

“I think skaters talk about this stuff because skating is so diverse and so violent,” Bueno says. “Skate culture is like a mosh pit — you are in a really diverse group and everyone hates you, or so you think at first. You want to get through it, and you want to let out some energy, but it’s painful. As soon as you get pushed down though, it’s almost guaranteed that you will get picked up by the same person that knocked you down.”

PUSH.POP.KICK. is a refreshing burst of counterculture in Boulder County. As violence, racism and sexuality demand significant political attention, the show offers a more subversive perspective. Skating and skate art are ushering in a culture of tough love inclusive of individuality, and the Firehouse is a welcome host.

ON THE BILL: PUSH. POP.KICK. Firehouse Art Center, 667 Fourth Ave., Longmont, 303-651- 2787. Through Sept. 27.