Ocean sounds: Painter makes noise combining punk music, surf culture and Pop Art
NEW CANAAN — It was the early 1990s, punk music was a thing of the past, and, not for the first time in his career, artist and musician Peter Dayton was looking for a new mode of self-expression.
These were the conditions under which Dayton’s unique series of surfboard paintings, three of which are showing as part of Heather Gaudio Fine Art’s aqua-themed exhibition “Waterways IV” through Sept. 10, were created.
Dayton had spent much of the previous decade restlessly traveling and living out a childhood rock ’n’ roll dream, first during a brief stint with his college punk band, La Peste. “I started La Peste in Boston in 1976 after I had seen the Ramones perform. I was in art school and it wasn’t all that exciting, so I decided I wanted to make some noise,” Dayton said. The band quickly rose to prominence on the Boston punk scene before Dayton withdrew, fearful of the toll his lifestyle was taking on his health. “I stopped because I realized I couldn’t go all the way with it. I wasn’t going to survive. It was just too intense,” he said.
Still, Dayton felt a compulsion to make music. He formed a New Wave band, played with power pop legends The Cars and spent time in France before settling back in the States in 1989 and, once again, exploring art.
His first creations, self-described “wacky pop art” — collages of flowers, reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Flower Paintings — first earned him recognition in the art world. But, true to form, Dayton became restless and felt compelled to take his work in a different direction.
“I was in a gallery that was being renovated and I saw some left over wood. I asked a guy if I could take the lumber and I just visualized that the pieces of wood, the rectangles, would become surfboards,” Dayton said on a recent Friday.
Growing up in 1960s Long Island, Dayton was influenced in equal parts by the pop art movement and the “surfer dudes” that were emerging in popular culture, thanks in part to the music of the Beach Boys and the documentary “Endless Summer.” Though Dayton found himself on the wrong coast at this time, and though surfers were scarce in his home state of New York, California surfing culture, like pop art and rock music before it, took hold of him.
“Those surfers were considered existentialist heroes because all they did was drive around and ride waves. The same could be said for artists,” Dayton said of the perceived freedom of expression that the groups displayed. “But there seemed to be a big rift between high culture (art) and low culture (surfing). My thought was to make that connection.”
Taking the rectangular slabs of wood he found, Dayton began applying paint and decals— often with the name of a particular artist whose style he would reference in a given work — to the boards. Because of the rectangular shape of the wood, the finished works are not in any sense utilitarian objects, but Dayton said it’s not unusual for them to be confused with actual surfboards.
“I’m abstracting the shape of the surfboard. I wanted to concentrate on the least important aspects of surfing — the logo, the stripes — and dissociate the board from the actual riding of waves,” Dayton said.
Rachael Palacios, of Heather Gaudio Fine Art, recently pointed out each of Dayton’s three works being exhibited at the gallery can either be hung or propped against the wall, as a surfboard might be propped against the wall of a California beach bungalow.
“He’s taking a commodity, an everyday object that we use, and he’s appropriating the language of pop art and then paying homage to minimalist artists — in this case, Frank Stella and Barnett Newman,” Palacios said.
According to Palacios, a piece bearing a decal with the name of Newman, one of the foremost mid-20th century color field painters, borrows the vertical stripes and large, bold fields of color that became a trademark of Newman’s work. The remaining two boards reference the gestural brushwork and linear designs of Stella. One shimmers silver like a slab of buoyant steel. The other employs columns of varying shades of nautical turquoise and teal. Rather than displaying the referenced artist’s name, one Stella-board features the logo of Bing, a maker of surfboards, a nod to the recontextualized commercialism of pop art, Dayton said.
“There’s a bridge between pop art and minimalism,” Dayton said. In his surfboard series, Dayton aims to bridge not just seemingly distinct art movements, but late 20th-century high and low culture as well.
“There’s a lot of rhythm and a lot of repetition in my work. There’s a lot of brightness and a kind of loudness,” said Dayton, of his varying influences and his continued desire to make noise.