Symbiotic Surfaces: In Conversation with Larry Bell + Jose Barahona

Published in Issue 04: Natures of VIA Publication, Winter/Spring 2015

Histories of Los Angeles surf culture and contemporary art exist as differing “worlds” as it were, all the while the belt of coastline LA encapsulates artists, makers, and artisans of these diverging cultures. We spoke with two distinguished artists in these respective disciplines, our curiosity whisking us away during afternoons meandering through LACMA and the Hammer, always at some point finding ourselves halfway below the surface of the ocean on our boards above LA’s continental shelf. How does their work inform one another? If we temporarily ignore the intangible cultures they belong to and focus on the objects alone, how can one dismiss their gleaming surfaces?


Refracting, reflecting, and bringing to mind our own perceptive phenomena of seeing, the seductive sheen of objectness, whether surfboard or iconic glass sculpture, reciprocates in its progressive, visually tantalizing cadence.  Their studios were each a tenth of a mile away from the lip of the Pacific, and our conversations reached dynamic provocations. What artist Larry Bell designates as inarguably “the biggest thing in LA”, the Pacific Ocean is a body of unrest, a symbol of provocative uncertainty and constant change. The sun, our vital source of life combined with the expansive body of water gleams off its surface, surfboards, and oceanic devotees who consistently return to this natural sanctum.


Illustrious figure of the Light and Space movement, Larry Bell, spoke in depth of his creative process, mountains-to-sea lifestyle, and fixation on the fundamentals of his materials of choice as they relate to celestial bodies and the subtleties of luminous surfaces.

Only several miles south of Bell’s Venice studio, Jose Barahona, former apprentice of legendary surfboard shaper Phil Becker, invited us into his humble shaping workshop in Hermosa Beach. Emblematic of coastal living, our conversations delved into the co-creation of resin-coated surfboards, keeping a keen focus on the influential authority of artisan and surfer, all within the specialized process of surfboard making.


Our curiosities were met with the idiosyncratic intricacies of their respective works—through two vastly different disciplines, we tuned into the overlap paying close attention to the intersections of their lifestyles, processes, and individualized ways of working. Proximity to the Pacific informed these overlaps of understanding, prompting internal reflections of our own as we documented and brought all details that lead up to the creation of these objects into question.

Limitations and expansiveness in respect to audience came up often, and at the end of our interviews a thought from Larry Bell resonates with utmost clarity: “Art is a teacher—it’s not an object, but a process…”