As an artist, de la Haba is well known for his work as a painter and now for his Totem-esque surfboards that he carves himself and have been presented at the Surfer Healing Foundation next to the works of Damien Hirst, Julian Schnabel, and Ron English.

de la Haba holding his surf board in Montauk
The artist de la Haba in Montauk holding one of his totems

Vertical Horizons/Horizontal Waves

The ocean or sea as subject matter in art is varied as art itself. Romantic painters including Casper David Friedrich and Theodore Gericault whose respective works of The Monk by the Sea (1810-12) and Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819), for example, dovetail on two notions of the maritime sublime wherein the former concerns transcendence and the other horror. More recently have been contemporary artists such as the photographer and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto who focused on the sea but from a conceptual framework. It is through all of these antecedents that one should approach the recent solo exhibition of Gregory de la Haba titled Vertical Horizons/Horizontal Waves, Totem Poems, at Monaco’s Meta Gallery.

His solo Show in the Meta Gallery, Monaco

Presented under his paternal nom de plume of de la Haba, the exhibition consists of photographs, assemblages, and sculptures thematically oriented around surfboards, the sea and tangentially the surfing subculture found throughout the world’s coasts. More than just a sport or recreation, surfing at its absolute is a lifestyle in which its practitioners have an almost Zen-like reverence for their activity and all things associated with it. The permutations that de la Haba configures in these intricately crafted sculptures encompass the surfer’s ethos and not only are they visually arresting artworks, but he manages to imbue this sculptural corpus with a broad purview of meaning that in lesser artistic and imaginative hands would suffer from the thematic and formal singularity.

Some sculptures are parred down where the arabesques seamlessly carved into the boards are animated by rich and otherworldly palettes. The interplay between negative space and the positive contours of the sculptures create, among other things, a sensuous allusion to the curvature of the human body. Most of de la Haba’s sculptures seemingly drift afield from their primary source, however: although the works are upright and generally resemble a surfboard, that is where surfing ends and a myriad of the narrative possibilities begin.

The Muses of Monte Carlo

The Muses of Monte Carlo (2019)

In the Muses of Monte Carlo (2019) for instance, the vertical forms in the three black totems, each with a painted gold stripe running down its center, take on religious and anthropological dimensions. The Christian Trinity as well as an evocation of some ancient, tribal deities manifest with an aesthetic elegance and discernibly confident métier.

The delicate and masterful cuts in the sculptures are not only compositional devices, they also allude to archaic notation or some otherworldly system of communication, or even some type of ersatz ornamentation found in the royal accoutrements from a long, lost or futuristic civilization. But the word totem is more than just a metaphor in the series’ title, for each individual artwork embodies the totemic in its diverse meanings: on the one hand they could outwardly signify the totemic as materialization of animal or spirit entity; on the other they also seem to rub up against psychoanalytic theories of the totem as representative of subconscious archetypes. Then there’s the classical anthropological reading of the totem as having to do with dreams as well as family, clans, and gender.

To show Bleached Coral Totems of Gregory de la Haba
Bleached Coral Totems, #1 and #2

The Bleached Coral Totems

But de la Haba’s formal and thematic use of the surfboard is not only touching on what might seem as the intangible; in two other works, Bleached Coral Totem #1 (2019), and Bleached Coral Totem #2 (2019), he has incorporated on their surfaces, front and back, an array of quotidian detritus, mostly plastics, found on New York City beaches. Hence these sculptures are a stark reminder of the fragility of the sea and the dangers of using it as some kind of public waste disposal. At the same time, de la Haba manages to make these works hauntingly beautiful: the white pigments and materials incorporated to ‘bleach’ the totems’ polychromatic waste (bleaching occurs naturally to coral reefs when they die, when the water they live in becomes contaminated and the healthy algae which give the reefs their color is killed off) meta-metamorphosize the plastics into something grander, a rallying cry, one that’s chillingly clear: We must do more to protect our oceans.

The Sirens of Montauk
The Sirens of Montauk

The wide formal and conceptual purview of the exhibition is astonishing considering its use of the surfboard as the point of thematic departure, and this is underscored in comparing other artists who used the same format consisting mostly of painting or printing on a surfboard’s foam surface before it is sealed with resin.

As an artist de la Haba is known for his work as a painter, and it’s revelatory to see him delve into another medium with such artistic deftness and assurance. We can only hope that he continues to ride out this wave wherever it will take him.

Meta Gallery Expose

de la Haba’s exhibition is on view in Monaco at the META Gallery 39 Avenue Princesse Grace for those passing through Monaco.

For any inquiries of de la Haba’s work, Please contact Donnalynn Patakos: [email protected]

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Marc Dennis

About the author

I live and work in New York City and have curated or co-curated 134 group and solo exhibitions in the Americas, Asia, and Europe. I am author, co-author, or contributor to 87 art-related books and exhibition catalogs; many of my publications have been translated into other languages: Bulgarian, Chinese, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, and Spanish. I am Corresponding Editor, Art Nexus, and other writings appear in numerous periodicals including Contemporary, TRANS, Zingmagazine, Journal of the West, Tema Celeste, La Tempestad, Art in Culture, [Art Notes], MAG, Framework: The Finnish Art Review, Public Art, and Flash Art. I studied art history at the C.U.N.Y Graduate Center, Columbia University, and the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU; and was a Helena Rubinstein Fellow in Critical Studies, Whitney Museum of American Art Independent Study Program. For a full overview of my activities to date see my CV.