From the street to the museum: MAH returns to the art of skateboard artist Jim Phillips in new exhibition
Jim Phillips and his eye-popping work for NHS on skateboard wheels is the focus of new show set to tour the world, but it will first bring his iconic work — much of it deep from the NHS archives — to his hometown at the Museum of Art & History. It will continue through the end of the year.
You really couldn’t draw up a more successful career in commercial art than the career of Jim Phillips.
Steady creative work for decades in your own hometown? Check. Cutting-edge, even subversive art that oozes with street-cred and is endorsed and encouraged by your client business? Check.
Your distinctive style and imagery recognized and spotted all over the world? Check. A devout fan base that is both generational and constantly renewing with young people? Check.
A super-talented namesake son following in your aesthetic footprints? Check.
And, now, a museum exhibit set to embark on a tour of the world, including New York, Tokyo, London, Berlin and many more, and set to begin in your hometown of Santa Cruz.
If the name is not readily familiar, the images sure are. Phillips, 76, is the staggeringly prolific and successful graphic artist behind both the iconic Santa Cruz “red dot” logo and the Screaming Blue Hand, both produced for NHS, Inc., the Santa Cruz-based titan in the skateboard industry and creators of Santa Cruz Skateboards.
He’s also the central figure in “The Art of the Santa Cruz Speed Wheel,” a collection of the art and illustrations created by Phillips for NHS in the late 1980s and early ’90s, not only a golden era for skateboard art, but the last great moment before the final conversion to computer graphics.
The exhibit opens at the Museum of Art & History (MAH) in Santa Cruz on Friday, and will remain there until the end of the year. Then, it launches on a tour to museums around the world, a compelling testament to Phillips’s artistic reach.
“That’s what we like about it,” said Marla Novo, the director of exhibitions and programs at the MAH, “the hometown is kicking off this international show. In 2016, we were the end venue for the Screaming Hand exhibition.”
The new exhibit is a tribute both to the uniquely lurid style of Phillips’s skateboard art of the ’80s, but also of the lost art of pre-digital graphic arts. Under a cascade of skateboard wheels hanging from the museum’s stairwell is the very machine used to print the art on those urethane wheels.
Inspired by the process by which graphics were printed onto Christmas-tree ornaments, NHS made the investment of $250,000 for the machine. But its innovative process launched everything from new wheel styles (such as the OJ, Bullet, and Slime Ball) to many now-familiar images, most notably the nearly ubiquitous Screaming Hand.
Against boldly graffitti’d walls in the MAH’s third floor Art Forum Gallery, the exhibit tells the story of how Phillips and his art pushed forward the evolution of skateboarding graphics, a melange of surrealist and comically menacing styles and images that bring to mind the underground comics of the 1960s, the punk-rock revolution of the ’70s, and the exaggerated ’80s-style juvenilia of MAD and Cracked magazines and the Garbage Patch Kids.
To the Photoshop generation, the exhibit also provides insights on how art was created, gasp, by hand.
The show is an echo of a similar MAH exhibit that celebrated the Screaming Hand back in 2016.
“After the Screaming Hand show, we realized that the archive was deep and that someday we were going to have to do another show,” said NHS president and CEO Bob Denike.
While the Screaming Hand has transcended skateboards and become a part of the general graphic arts landscape (especially in Santa Cruz), the art in the “Speed Wheel” exhibit is more a deep dive into old-school graphic arts and skateboard culture.
“You’ll see a lot of pencil, painting, sketches, final art,” said Denike. “There’s advertising images, outtakes, photographs, videos. If you’re an art nerd/skateboard nerd from that period, your mind will be blown by some of the stuff that we’ve pulled out of the archive.”
“NHS, they bring the fun, they bring the color, and they bring a lot of professionalism to this stuff,” said Novo. “When they came to us, they were like, ‘We’re going to do a show, we’re going to tag the walls with slime and speedballs and vomit.’ And we were like, ‘Count us in. Sounds like fun.’”
The exhibition’s opening also marks a return of the MAH to the monthly First Friday art tour since 2019. “We’re kind of tiptoeing back into it,” said Novo. “We’re going to have 50 folks capacity here at all times, max. But we really want to carefully and safely show this exhibition.”