Simon Buttonshaw on the beating heart of surfing
One of the many events sidelined by the COVID-19 lockdown was a planned exhibition by Gash surfboards. It was to be held over Easter in the old Gash factory in Torquay.
Called '7Blades' it was, as the name implies, seven surfboards exhibited on a wall. Yet as with everything that Gash do, one must look below the surface coat to make sense of it, below even the rich colour palette and the striking iconography. There you'll find a group of friends with a shared belief in what surfing is, and also, just because they're opinionated bastards, wasn't surfing isn't.
The beliefs propel their creative efforts: Greg Brown mowing foam, Paul Cousins glassing, and Simon Buttonshaw adding colour, images, and ideas. However, the 7Blades exhibition brought others into the fold, others who shared their vision of surfing. Cuzzo's son Will polished all the finished pieces, Simon's son Shyama helped paint them, while the exhibition was conceived and curated by Josh Rush. Josh is the guy who, as Simon puts it, "created the architecture in which the ideas can live."
Meanwhile, Tom Cole worked the online interface, the significance of which increased when the lockdowns came and the exhibition had to move online.
Swellnet spoke to Simon Buttonshaw, who's worked as an artist for many decades, about 7Blades.
Swellnet: The Gash exhibition doesn't arise out of a vacuum. You guys have been at this for a very long time. In the beginning, it was a reaction against what was happening in surfing, which may be called the debasement of surfing. Is that the way that you saw it?
Simon: Yes, though debasement is a fairly powerful word. Nonetheless, on a very specific level, when Gash was formed I was still working with Quiksilver and the CEO at the time came up to me and said, "We won't be needing artists anymore, we can just do these collegiate versions of the logo and we're printing money. You'd better look for something else to do down the track."
And considering what Quiksilver had come from I thought that was very silly.
Because Quiksilver had been creative and original up to that point..?
Yes. So I literally went home, got a piece of bamboo, carved myself a pen and started drawing.
And that's the truth! That's what actually happened. It was the early days with computer, and I was really disgusted by the debasement...or the mediocrity, that'd be the word I'm inclined to use - the mediocrity of everything. I mean, collegiate fucking logo, you've got to be joking?
And, well, I had a name - Gash - and I had the images, I'd been turning all that shit round inside me for years, just waiting for the right set of circumstances to give them life.
So yes, there was the reactionary aspect to Gash and I just wanted to talk to the part of us that's got more grit and more guts. Do you really want to look like someone out of a college in Southern California? Is that really what we've come to..?
Now jumping forward to the present day: What's the purpose of the current exhibition?
One thing I'll say very clearly, is that our motivations haven't changed one bit. It's exactly the same motive. I mean right now, the institutional and industry side of surfing is spiritually bankrupt. It's never been worse. There's never been more people interested in surfing, yet never been less people interested in the brands, the contests.
So...the exhibition, Josh Rush and I worked together at Quiksilver. We'd worked together very closely, over many projects, over a long period of time. Then this opportunity came along and we decided to bring our talents together, if you like. Josh and I have a very fruitful range of skills, and we both care about where surfing has lost its heart. We're a generation apart, Josh is half my age, but that's something we really share.
Our intention was to shine a spotlight back on the craftsmanship and the quality of commitment that lies at the heart of the surfing culture.
There's not one person that doesn't need to go to a surfboard maker at some point so they can go surfing. It's fundamental.
Josh and I looked at the current landscape and we thought...well, fuck, it's not that different to when Gash first began. If anyone cares about this world, then it needs to be significantly renewed.
And you're not going to renew it from the top down, you can only renew it from the heart up. The heart of any...OK, bear with me here. The word 'surf industry' is something that rolls off everyone's tongue endlessly, but the only industry I take seriously is surfboard making.
The other things are just fashion, not integral to surf culture the way a surfboad is.
Exactly. You can wear whatever the fuck you like, you can buy your clothes in Coles or K-Mart or anywhere, you can get them out of the op shop. It doesn't make any difference to how well you surf. And, high performance boardshorts, you got to be fucking joking! Made out of the same fabric, with the same design, the same silhouette, everything else as what's in K-Mart. It's just bullshit.
It's become more and more and more disconnected from reality to the point where it's imploded. But what's not disconnected from reality are the people who spend their life developing a skillset that allows them to design and make a board at the highest possible quality, and that'll perform at the highest possible level.
So what we really wanted to do was show that these boards are beautifully made and that the excellence of execution is the subject. And it's why we wanted to call it an exhibition: We wanted them up on the wall so people could look at them through new eyes, as if they were a sculpture by Brâncuși.
It's a risk. These days everyone has twenty boards in the garage. It's a form we're very familiar with.
True. But I wanted to help people see them with fresh eyes because those fresh eyes are what will renew the values that underpin the world we're in. And if this world is to go forward, it won't be in the hands of those big companies anymore. It'll be in the hands of smaller groups of people that are working from the heart, just like we did way back.
The Gash story is a classic Torquay story. Gash metaphorically stabbed the lumbering international companies in the heart to highlight what's important: That being a grassroots appeal to your immediate community. There was a human connection.
The word 'human' is very important.
A part of me has been jealous that Gash isn't in my neighbourhood. By that I mean, you put your values on display so like-minded locals know they're supporting the right people. Having that local connection is important.
Yeah, look around, everything is so global and unified and digitally platformed, all very uniform. But if, for example, you go to somewhere like Brooklyn, what you see is communities, very tight communities, functioning in an original, self-sustaining way.
Compare that to the surf industry, which aspires to reach a level beyond human scale, and it's compelled to, half those companies are public, they've got no choice, but it doesn't really represent us anymore. Who are they talking to?
Quick question: Expansion via public listing...a mistake?
Yes, that was a mistake. I remember hearing an interview with Keith Richards once, and the interviewer was a pretty sharp character and he asked, "Well how come the Rolling Stones never became a big public company because you would have made a fucking fortune?"
And Keith just smiled and looked at the guy and he said, "No, no, no, this is a family company."
Keith was on the money.
Literally. Back in the day Gash was a bunch of friends working together. Wayne [Lynch] is my closest friend, lifelong friend. Brownie was a very good friend, Phippsy [Mark Phipps] was a young kid back then, and Peter Ashley who taught Cuzzo to glass, Peter and I go way back to the very beginning of surfboard making in Torquay.
So it was friendship, but this time around it's generational.
Friends and family. Josh is half my age, Shyama [Buttonshaw - Simon's son] plays a big part in everything I do now and we work together. I mean, I've painted half the boards out of his little factory at Bells there.
So, Shyama is both family and a sounding board for ideas and a great surfer and craftsman in his own right, and he's taken those values forward in a wonderful way. Likewise Josh and his brother, Tom, they both kind of cut their teeth in the industry. They both came out of school and straight into it, but they're bright, and they've looked at it and gone well, it's not all a bed of roses.
We wanted an opportunity to help renew something we cared deeply about. And I think the fact that it is generational is quite special. I think that...I don't want to get too deep and meaningless, but the way culture gets handed on is a very compelling subject for me. The one thing I'm very certain of in our world, is that it's not handed on institutionally.
Why did you choose 7 blades?
In all honesty, it was reasonably arbitrary. The way we did it, each time we did a board, Josh and his brother, Tom, would document the process, and then they'd take my original artwork and produce a T-shirt and we'd sell 66 of them...
Really? I bought one of the Angel shirts but I had no idea it was part of a bigger process.
Yeah. Each run of shirts gave us the money to fund the next board, so each one carried that through to the next one. That's how we financed the entire project, and by the time we got to seven, that was probably the natural kind of limit.
Nothing to do with Seven Deadly Sins?
That's better than the truth - I'll use that from now on!
But it was just kind of a natural point at which the line got drawn. And seven is a good number on a very practical level when you're exhibiting something on a wall. I've always liked a centrepiece with an even number on either side. So it had to be an odd number. Five wasn't enough, nine was too many.
You've used a lot of religious iconography in the past, but one of the more recent pieces isn't biblical, it's the chewed up apple core.
That was another one I'd been carrying around for a long time, and the phrase I put with it, 'What's left when everything else has been eaten', I hope that's reasonably self-explanatory.
Yeah, it's pretty obvious what we're alluding to.
As we were conceptualising the new project, we felt that was a contemporary nod to the Heart and Dagger, which was the first piece of art I did in the beginning of the whole journey. That was Greg's shaping logo back in the day.
So when Roar got fucked over and Gash was born I used the Heart and Dagger. I did that partly just to stick it up the people that fucked us over. There was an element of defiance. The Core addresses exactly the same subject. You see, with the Heart and Dagger, the heart is still beating even though it's stabbed by the dagger.
And the Core readdresses that subject and says, 'Well, all right, you lot have chewed the fuck out of this, but out of that core you're going to see a whole new vision grow."
I'm just an old hippy...who carries a blade! Greg, in his own way, is the same. Certainly that's a mood, a spirit Josh and I have always shared when working together. So we created that little video with it with the boy and the girl eating the apple, gave a bit of a nod to Warhol as a bit of fun.
You know, 'core' is probably the most abused and misused words in the surfing vernacular.
What's the line?....'Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel'. Well, core is the last refuge of a failing industry.
They reach for that word when everything else is falling apart, and I thought, 'fuck that, I'm going to take that word'. So, that's what that was about.
Gash is about much more than colour and the aesthetics, it's what goes on behind all that, giving it depth.
There's a quote on our website: "Thinkers and artists, like surgeons, operate with blades". It's by Peter Conrad. We really wanted it in there at the beginning so people know there is some thought behind it, it isn't just fashion.
Everyone relates Gash back to the late-80s because that's when it happened, but if you go back and look at what fashion looked like in the 80s, Gash couldn't be more opposite.
No, for mine Gash led the way into the 90s.
It was ahead of the curve.
Yes, and working close to the cultural coalface, you become sensitive to the landscape and so that was very conscious. You know, there was nothing accidental about it. I mean, the 80s was all puffed up hair and egos.
Now, the exhibition was forced to go online because of COVID-19, yet when the restrictions are lifted will people be able to come in and view the boards?
Absolutely. I mean, art is visceral. But it'll only happen when we feel that's genuinely a safe thing to do, and we're not putting anyone in harm's way.
I like the way that we've responded to the coronavirus and to the landscape that the pandemic has created. I think we've responded pretty wholeheartedly and pretty creatively, but nothing equals actually having direct experience - of course. And art, more than anything else, demands that.
As we mentioned before, digital platforms have their limitations.
They can only do so much. In some ways it's saved the world from going mad, but we're also seeing what it can't do.
I call it the Mona Lisa phenomenon. You see so many pictures of it that when you go to The Louvre and you stand in front of, it takes you about two hours to get over all the shit you've got in your head and really look at it, to see why it's so famous.
I think the boards are very much like that. In one respect, we felt unresolved with the way we had to do it. The true subjects of the exhibition are those seven boards, and they should hang on that concrete wall in the old Gash factory and people should stand in front of them and look at them.
And when they do, the experience will be so much more rewarding.