The Emergent Pattern

An examination of the artwork of Geoffrey Cunningham

If you were to wander through the Goat Hill Park golf course on a full-moon night, you might find artist Geoff Cunningham walking the fairways. More than a matter of preference, it’s simply a matter of time—the only window during a day’s 24-hour life cycle that Cunningham has to actually tee it up. The rest of the day he’s otherwise occupied—busy running Linksoul, a company he co-founded, surfing, making art and enjoying his wife, Carrie, and their daughter, Vera. Although he now does more of it at night, Cunningham sees golf as a communal practice that brings a person closer to nature, like painting, surfing and yoga. As Cunningham puts it, “All of these practices start tribally and then get bastardized, usually for profit…and I think as soon as they do, they are no longer the practice. Golf that hoards space and only allows for rich white men in carts to play it has so little to do with the actual game that it shouldn’t even be called golf.” Cunningham’s approach to art is just as socially conscious and attuned to his environment. He makes work that responds to the place he lives: the town of Oceanside in Southern California and the broader context of the United States. 

In his Oceanside studio, Cunningham futzes around before he settles into the space. Then he works to make connections between odd scraps accumulated on his wall and fragments of past work. Throughout the day he takes mental notes of things overheard and seen. Slowly, patterns begin to emerge.

The Ocean Course at Kiawah, 2012 PGA Championship, oil on canvas, 24 × 56 inches

“From all these things,” he explains, “ideas start to form, and I pull gently on their threads like when I’m trying to remember a dream in the morning. If I pull too hard, they often break and disappear.” 

Using whatever material best fits his message (sometimes he works with objects, other times with performance, painting or drawing), Cunningham makes artwork about a range of subjects: war, loss, blame, illusions of American freedom, and portraits of golfers on the sport’s margins. He speaks about these political issues in quiet, spacious ways; his art has the quality of a question, of a hand touching a shoulder rather than a bullhorn or graffitied slogan. An assemblage of dark objects suspend in the air, patches of uneven shapes drawn in ink come together to mend a ruin, pieces of black cloth hang in memoriam, a woman in a painting smiles, mid-sentence, while holding a golf club. 

The way Cunningham thinks about his role as an artist might have something to do with his ability to convey that quiet sensibility through his work. For Cunningham, art requires him to lose himself. “The main thing is that I get out of myself. I am not interesting at all,” he says. “The last thing the world needs is another white male artist masturbating on canvas. There’s so much more to talk about.” 

Specifically, Cunningham would rather talk about how Oceanside is a military city trying to pose as a tourist destination and how this works as a metaphor for the U.S., or the ways people perpetuate cycles of blame in their everyday lives, or the devastating workings of war, or the old stereotypes that cling to images of golf. “If it hits the mark,” he says, “I might show people. If not, I keep working…”

STANDARD BEARERS, 2009, oil on canvas, 72 48 inches

Each day on his drive to work, Cunningham notes the palm trees lining the highway. He sees their beauty and thinks about how they get used to bolster an illusion of freedom that presents Oceanside as a kind of getaway, masking the reason for the military populace and our ongoing involvement in war. This tension between a connection with nature and the ways in which nature can get used for profit and violence fuels Cunningham’s work, both in the studio and on the golf course. He remembers the five things that keep him spiritually alive: time with family, time with friends, time in nature, physical exercise and making things with his hands. “I try to touch each of these things every day somehow,” he says.  

Even if it means teeing off long after everyone else is fast asleep.