Riding The Conceptual Wave: An Interview Of Alex Knost And Daniella Murphy On Founding The Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center

Costa Mesa, California isn’t necessarily a place where you would find a conceptual art center. Typically, you’d find miles and miles of industrial centers of commerce, nondescript retail hubs, shopping malls and franchises. Under the Southern California sun, Costa Mesa is more a setting for a novel about a society on the verge of a postmodern existential crisis. But within this crisis, you’ll find a bit of catharsis with the brand new Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center. Founded by surfer, surf historian, artist and musician Alex Knost, who recently came out with a collaborative album with Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, and curator Daniella Murphy, the CMCAC is a small haven for creativity in a wide strangulating vortex of urban commercialism. Located on a boulevard that looks like a hundred other boulevards – about an hour from Downtown Los Angeles – the CMCAC is conceptual in and of itself. It is not a large fancy art complex with multimillion-dollar donations and starchitect design – it is a simple storage facility acting as a gallery and a launching pad for local artists and musicians. The first artist to show at the space is Justin Adams – his exhibition, Dancing Baby, is on view now. Autre got a chance to catch up with Murphy and Knost to discuss their art center and what it means to the art world as a whole. 

Douglas Neill: What was the impetus for opening the Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center with the work of Justin Adams?

Daniella Murphy: Justin lives in Alex Knost’s garage, informally. He made a spate of paintings in a really short amount of time. Alex came back from tour and Justin had made a ton of paintings, the bulk of which you see here. I think that’s how it came together. We saw what he had made and we prompted him to let us show it.

Neill: Is Justin’s process part of what interested you in showcasing his work?

Alex Knost: Justin’s process is more or less constantly participating in deconstruction. As far as being an artist who showcases his work, that’s not really him. Most of these paintings were produced in steps. All over the place…on the bed, on the ground. He’d just always be in there, tinkering about. It wasn’t really something that he presented to us at all.  It was more us prying and taking away the blankets and tee shirts that were covering all the work he had been making over the six months or so and actually looking at each other and being informally persuaded on our own recognition. I think we’re still talking him into it. He’s generally quite uncomfortable.

Murphy: We had to draw it out of him. The prime artistic act, that’s what he is.

Neill: It looks like he really digs in...using his hands.

Murphy: He uses paintbrushes and his hands and whatever he has. A lot of these canvases were found. One of the works is actually part of his car.

Neill: Lots of emotion.

Murphy: It’s definitely an outlet for him, an emotional outlet.

Neill: How did you guys come together to start the Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center?

Murphy: We kind of talked about it and yeah I went to school and studied art and I used to manage a space in San Francisco that was similar in that I facilitate people’s shows coming together. Whether it be someone asking to show at a particular space, never really soliciting artists, just kind of helping people.

Neill: Connecting people.

Murphy: Yeah, at Adobe Books in San Francisco. It’s nice working with people who aren’t established and Alex was kind of keenly interested in my background, thought it was interesting and a different perspective.

Neill: Did you two meet there?

Murphy: No, we met down here actually, in LA.

Knost: My artistic background is in creating my own body of work, which at times is a tug of war because it’s hard to promote something that you create on your own. With Daniella’s knowledge of art and being selfless towards it...I thought it was charming that Daniella’s resume was in art appreciation. It created a platform. She works in LA.

Murphy: I work at a space that’s a residency and exhibition space. It’s a non profit called Fahrenheit and it’s sponsored by the FLAX Foundation which is a French foundation that facilitates French artists coming to LA and having a cultural exchange and introducing French artists in the LA context. But moving away from that, being here now more so than in LA, there’s this palpable feel here. There aren’t that many art spaces like in Orange County or this direct environment.

Neill: For better or worse there’s a lot of art aimed at tourists and the real housewives in Orange County.

Murphy: We like to see these works insinuating themselves in those homes though.

Knost: In any creative sense, I feel artists or musicians or people that are striving to create art, there’s a heart and a vibe, there’s the original area where they started and then where they’ve gravitated towards. It’s getting harder and harder for artists who solely want to create and not have to work at a café or bank off their inheritance or whatever they got, to live in places like Los Angeles and New York or San Francisco. It’s so expensive.

Murphy: As it always has been. It’s nice to have this space here, as opposed to LA.

Neill: What makes Costa Mesa the place?

Knost: From my perspective, my way of romanticizing it is we came here because this is where I grew up. I always thought of it as this bleak flat mesa in which a lot of people, since the 70s and even more so in my generation, have been great artists, musicians, who have solely been able to abide by their own facilities because there’s a lot of industrial buildings. There’s a large Latino community and they’re not as uptight and then there’s this sharp contrast with Newport Beach where it’s very consumer. You’ve had a lot of these artists and musicians residing here out of affordability and it’s always kind of seemed more of a comfortable habitat rather than a stepping stone or pedestal or something in order to grasp for vantage to be in Hollywood or something like that. It’s much more feasible.

Neill: A different headspace.

Murphy: It’s also as if socializing is a curator and artist’s metabolism. You have to go out and make those connections. So we’re trying to facilitate those connections down here. This space will hopefully be generative of it. Not just with this show, this space will be for other kinds of projects as well. 

Neill: Will CMCAC be primarily visual art or will there be music or performance?

Murphy: There’ll be performance and installations. When I walk into a space I just always want something experiential. You know something affecting, not necessarily nice art on the wall.

Knost: I believe that in calling it the Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center is that, although you can look at this body of work and regard it as a decorative or abstract expressionism or anything like that, this environment becomes valuable. Justin’s work, for example, it’s very much an excruciating manifest. It’s not as if he’s a type of fellow that would go here or schmooze there to gain his repertoire. I think that in having him present his body of work as the first show is a flag in recognizing that something conceptual is obviously the thought process taking the precedent or the state of being and I think it’s very well exemplified in his work.

Neill: Is there an ultimate goal for the space? Do you want to expand it or take it as it goes?

Knost: I think the content of what passes through here obviously will amount to much more and spread its tentacles, but as far as expansion, it’s a humble environment. It isn’t as much of a progressive capitalist type thing. That’s why we called it a center, as to kind of make it communal and never ending expansion. Not ‘here’s our ceiling, here’s our goal, here’s this acute area in which to achieve.’ 

Neill: Would you ever display your own work?

Knost: Of course. The refreshing thing about doing something like this is that you’re watching all the pieces fall and being at ease with that.

Neill: Do you have roles when you’re working together?

Murphy: It’s definitely collaborative. It’s not the most formal of spaces, but it’s true to Alex’s ethos and he’s generously allowed me to partake. It’s fluid. As far as decisions with the show here, we’ll both have a say, we’ll both contribute.

Knost: We’re very open, very lax, very non-appointed. I think maybe in the first year of developing galleries and exhibition spaces, it’s always a push and pull thing. It’s usually quite aggressive, as if there are chiefs that appoint Indians that can take credit and vice versa. You know, a lot of hunter-gatherers doing so strictly to have a resume. Where as here, between Daniella and me, with the artists or musicians, poets or writers, the people that want to showcase their work, there’s more of a general consensus. 

Murphy: It’s based on aesthetic considerations, of course. We have a lot of friends who make work who we won’t show here.

Knost: We’re not scratching people’s backs. That’s not our goal. There has to be something present in it that we find circumstantial.

Neill: Has surfing influenced how you perceive art and how the creative process?

Knost: Of course, it’s an existential struggle. In surfing, there’s a balance of greed between this macho hunting for waves, outsmarting the other population, but then there’s also the embarrassment. I feel that great artists are willing to obtain greatness from despair and the complications that arise from that. In that sense, you realize that sometimes a stride can be an embarrassing one…at most a very human one. I believe that art that I find intriguing has its faults.

Neill: How did you and Kim Gordon meet/come to create together?

Knost: We had mutual friends...one gal who sells and shows her art, her husband is a filmmaker who I know. One of the groups that I’m in, performed for his after party for one of his films in New York maybe two years ago. I met her at the event, we played pool. She was working on her body of work, but needed fiberglass. I work with fiberglass, so I eventually assisted her on some works for a show she had coming up. Along the line, her being a musician, we had some free time and we ended up recording and making that record [Glitterbust] and she went on to have her show and it was great to be a part of that. The record was something that I believe we’re both quite proud of.

Justin Adams' exhibition Dancing Baby will be on view until December 17, 2016 at The Costa Mesa Conceptual Art Center, 930 Placentia Blvd unit B3 Costa Mesa, CA. text and photographs by Douglas Neill. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE

A Samurai of the Sea: An Interview With Photographer Nolan Hall On Surf Culture and The Mysticism Therein

Surf culture has a certain spiritual mysticism that extends beyond the sport and enters the realm of the samurai. There are codes, there are secrets and there are veils split by the curling lip of the tide. Surfers are like samurai warriors of the sea. Growing up in Capistrano Beach, the waves beckoned a young Nolan Hall and so did the clandestine beaches, and secret surf locales and the legends of the sport. And since, surf culture has become a way of life for Hall; not only as a surfer, but also a documentarian. His photographs have taken him on wild adventures – a selection of those images will be shown at his solo exhibition, entitled Peregrines, opening this weekend at Paul Loya Gallery. In the following interview, Autre chatted with Hall about his internship with legendary surf brand RVCA during its halcyon days before it was purchased by Billabong in 2010, his entrance into the Deadbeat Photographers Club that counts the renowned skater and photographer Ed Templeton as a fellow member, and his current stint as the tour manager of the Vans surf club team. What you will learn about Nolan is that he is the ultimate samurai of the sea. 

OLIVER KUPPER: What came first, surfing or photography?

NOLAN HALL: Surfing.

KUPPER: How did that come about?

HALL: My dad surfed. He would take me down the beach at a young age. When I was really little, I was super not into it. But my dad was in this surf club, and I met a bunch of kids my age who surfed. We would skate around together. I think once I made solid friends that did the same thing, I got super hyped on it. It just grew from there.

KUPPER: Where did you grow up?

HALL: I grew up in Capistrano Beach.

KUPPER: What was it about surfing that you knew was going to be a part of your life?

HALL: I don’t know. My dad did it, so it was always easy to hop in the car and go surf with him. It felt like summer.

KUPPER: Surfing does have a spiritual aspect to it. It’s like entering into a strange, new religion. It’s not like other sports.

HALL: For sure. It’s dumb in a sense, but it’s one of those things you can’t describe. I’m sure everyone feels it when they’re doing it. I know when I surf before work, or in the morning, I feel better for the rest of the day.

KUPPER: I’ve had friends who are surfers. They say that there’s something about going into the water and coming out – it’s like a life changing experience.

HALL: It’s definitely one of those things where people get hooked. Someone’s friend turns them onto it, and it’s like being let into a whole new world.

KUPPER: Besides your dad, who are some surfers that you look up to?

HALL: When I was younger, my friends and I rode traditional longboards. At the time, that was super uncool. It was the late 90s, the age of the shortboard. Now, you can surf whatever. There are no weird vibes. I grew up longboarding, so we used to watch all these older guys from the 60s – Lance Carson, Skip Frye.

KUPPER: So you’re kind of a renegade to be in with the longboarders?

HALL: I wouldn’t say “renegade.” We were off on our own deal.

KUPPER: How did photography come about?

HALL: My dad had these small Nikon cameras. What got me fired up was the movie The Seedling, filmed by Thomas Campbell. Campbell, Barry McGee, Andy Davis – all these guys were making this really impactful art. That was around when I was fourteen, when I was just hanging out with my friends. We were surfing, skating, getting into these adventures. I wanted to document it.

KUPPER: What did your parents do?

HALL: My mom works in oils, like landscape oils. I never know what to call her. She’s a pleine aire artist. My dad has bartended, hung wallpaper. He hung wallpaper for the majority of when I was younger.

KUPPER: He was also into photography and surfing?

HALL: I think he was into photography the way your average person was. He had the Nikon film camera, but that was the only way to take photos at the time. I wouldn’t say he was a super enthusiast.

KUPPER: Do you shoot mainly with film?

HALL: Yeah.

KUPPER: Are you a film purist?

HALL: I’ve had a digital camera for gigs and promotional work. But people are psyched on film. Primarily, I have a Rangefinder camera that I take black and white in.

KUPPER: Back to surfing, because it’s a big part of your career, what is your theory on why surfing and skating are so intertwined with art? You don’t see basketball or football being explored in the same way.

HALL: Creative people invented those things. Someone, at some point, to break the lull, said, “I’m going to go ride that wave. I’m going to make a board and try to ride that.” That’s some pioneering shit. Skateboarding has the most creative people. Iconic skateboards are insane. They are both art forms in themselves. When you’re skateboarding, you can choose to look a certain way, there are certain lines. When you’re surfing, you have a certain style.

KUPPER: Let’s talk about RVCA. You teamed up with them before they were bought out?

HALL: Yeah. When I was in high school, so before 2003, the Bowers Museum in Orange County was doing a surfing retrospective. RVCA was doing an opening party. We did a catalogue to go with it. KC, my old boss, sent me on a school day to the museum with a terrible digital camera. I get there, and I see Aaron Rose, and I was so nervous and speechless. He was super cool and posed for a photo. Then I just floated around as people were setting up the show, and I loved it.

KUPPER: How did you get started with them?

HALL: I had done things like that, where they would give me assignments. I also worked at the warehouse, doing sample sales. This was before I was officially hired. While I was still going to community college, they offered me a position as KC’s assistant. I was still living with my parents. The first day I showed up in the office, I introduced myself to KC. He was very kind to me, but then he just went back to work. I was sitting there with nothing to do. Eventually, he was like, “Do you need something?” He had no idea.

KUPPER: So he had to invent things for you to do?

HALL: The first thing he had me started on was building the catalogue. The company was so small. I think it was a 20 or 30 page catalogue that I laid out on cork. I had no idea how to use cork. I was trying to figure it out, kind of getting it. We got it printed at Kinko’s, like with a spiral. It was super early. Since I was also into photography, if we needed more images, they would say, “Hey, meet this person in town.” That led to semi-annual trips with people. It blossomed. With RVCA, you meet so many artists.

KUPPER: They were a quintessential brand.

HALL: It’s so different now, but at the time, it was so new. It was such a cool vibe.

KUPPER: I don’t think there are brands like that anymore.

HALL: It’s hard when you become so big. You either stick to your niche and make specific stuff, or you try to make everything and it becomes kind of vanilla.

KUPPER: When did you start ANP Magazine?

HALL: That might have been 2005.

KUPPER: Were you there around the founding of that?

HALL: Yeah.

KUPPER: It’s not around anymore?

HALL: I think it is, but they don’t do quarterly. I think they might only do it once a year now. I don’t know how it seemed from the outside, but we were just scrambling to get it to the printer. Distributing it was insane. We physically drove to places. The East Coast probably got a few boxes sent out, but then we had to physically drop them off everywhere else.

KUPPER: It got serious reach. People experienced it and liked it. That's from my outside perspective, living in LA at that time. There was this motorcycle garage/café called Choked. That’s where I first saw it. I remember loving it. It was super rock n’ roll.

HALL: It was cool because it was all interesting. They weren’t pushing anything. They weren’t trying to sell you anything.

KUPPER: You have worked with Aaron Rose and some other big artists. You must have learned a lot and grown up as an artist through that process.

HALL: Those guys were there working on the mag. I didn’t work extensively for them. I was just the help, for the most part. But it was cool to see it happen. Writing articles, editing down things.

KUPPER: When did Vans come along?

HALL: After RVCA, I was playing in a band. We got a record deal with Vice Records, so we wanted to take it seriously. We did that for two years, touring. Music was different then. There was no social media. We weren’t getting out there, and we weren’t making any money. We just kind of called it. I moved back in with my parents. While I was there, my boss at Vans now hit me up and said, “Hey, I need someone to go to Hawaii during Triple Crown.” So I was like, "Yeah!" I went to do reportage. That was a two month trip, and at the end of it, he offered me an assistantship. Shortly after that, I got hired as the surf team manager.

KUPPER: What does that job involve? You travel a lot.

HALL: It’s similar to a tour manager in a band. Booking, accommodations, flights, setting up trips, coordinating with filmmakers and photographers.

KUPPER: What’s the most recent place you’ve been?

HALL: I was just in Florida for a surfing event that we sponsored. I took a few of the guys up to New York for the 50th anniversary. They did a bunch of parties and events all over.

KUPPER: Throughout all that, you get to be really creative. You get to have the camera out and everything.

HALL: It’s cool. Every now and then, our art director will ask for photos for this or that. It’s not a whole lot of pressure to create images. I’m just out on these trips taking photos.

KUPPER: What is the Deadbeat Photographer’s Club?

HALL: It’s a publishing company by Clint Woodside. He approached a few people when he was first starting it, and that became the core group. Ed Templeton, Devin Briggs, Grant Hatfield, and myself. Those are the core people, and there a bunch of others. It’s just a total nerd club. It’s funny: when we’re all together, we all have our cameras. If something interesting happens, five people rush over to try to take a picture of it. Ed’s been a mentor to me in growing a photo and art career.

KUPPER: And you’re starting to push more towards that career? You have a show coming up. Do you want to start transitioning into a career as an artist?

HALL: It would be awesome. I also think it would be really difficult. If you can be doing what you love, I’m totally for that.

KUPPER: What can we expect from your show coming up?

HALL: It’s all photos from either work trips or just around town. It’s moments in surf culture. The photos are small moments of being in that environment, without being just surf photography. I’ve never been interested in the action shot. There are some action photos in there, but it’s not normally what you see in surf photos. It’s like a backstage photo of a band – something you don’t get to see.

KUPPER: And you’re deep inside of it. You’ve become sort of a documentarian of that lifestyle.

HALL: It has been documentary.

KUPPER: Looking at your work, you can tell that it’s not “surf photography.” It’s documenting surf culture, in a way that’s embedded in the fabric of that lifestyle.

HALL: It’s a study of the culture.

KUPPER: Who are some other photographers that photograph that world? It seems like there aren’t many.

HALL: There are a bunch. Todd Glaser, who is a working staff photographer for SURFER Magazine. He documents everything. He has everything inside and outside of the water, environmental portraiture stuff.

KUPPER: The surfer world right now still seems kind of cult. It seems like a secret, in a way.

HALL: It’s tough. There’s a lot out there, but you have to travel to far places where there is nothing around, at times when there are storms and weird weather patterns. There are also a lot of people that like to keep beaches and waves secret.

KUPPER: What’s the craziest place you’ve ever surfed? Or the most beautiful?

HALL: Byron Bay in Western Australia has some beautiful beaches. The Barton River area is all wine country, so there’s no development on the coast. I surfed in Alaska two or three years ago. It was springtime, so it wasn’t freezing. But it was an awesome experience. It felt like you were breathing good oxygen. You’re out in an area where there’s no one around.

Nolan Hall "Peregrines" opens April 2 at at Paul Loya Gallery in Culver City and runs until May 21, 2016. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE