Under the sultry shine of a California sun, more than one deadpan artist and otherworldly visionary, fictive character and everyday human, has dreamed desire and class, poetry and leisure, into the placid hue of a swimming pool. An inflatable lounge drifts in the cool, chemical blue. Pink-parts swimsuited, a curve of naked skin slowly tans, and manicured fingernails dip thoughtlessly into the surface of the water. Chlorine lends it clarity but subtle impurities capture the low red of light’s spectrum, and the water beams back the wettest of cyans. In the sky above Los Angeles, weary air travellers fingering barf-bags bend against the oval windows as the plane banks for descent, their dazed eyes counting the kidney-curved blues that punctuate the tract houses under the swaying palm trees.
Like bottle-blonde, the colour is too perfectly synthetic to hide its factory fakery. Like all water, a pool is a dream of life, but this stuff’s totally undrinkable. What isn’t laced with piss is diluted poison. However illusory, its cool, wet kiss gives such sweet relief to sunbaked skin.
A California dream, Hockney’s naked boys make a silent splash into its depthless colour, the perfect sunlight casting rippling shadows made permanent with paint
A wastrel Benjamin in The Graduate (1967) basks in the directionless drift of postcoital bliss and suburban ennui, an earned rest from Mrs. Robinson’s mature charms. A California dream, Hockney’s naked boys make a silent splash into its depthless colour, the perfect sunlight casting rippling shadows made permanent with paint. The empty stare of Ed Ruscha’s Nine Swimming Pools (1968) is matched with swathes of blank pages and concluded with a broken glass. Zoe Crosher snaps the blank water from above in the series The Pools I Shot (2006–), each sun-dappling shadow across its placid surface soaked with sultry promise and foreboding noir. Off Sunset Blvd, Joe Gillis floats facedown in the pool he always wanted, though the black-and-white film can’t show the hue of the water in his lungs.
Summer children dream of its slippery play, their eyes open underwater to a hushed world beneath this one that we can visit but never live. Following the long half-hour after lunch, parentally imposed, the two-tone call of “Marco” is met with a quiet splash and the reluctant return of “Polo”. In a water park wonderland, the endless slides, tubed and slick, empty with a splash into frothy pools, bare feet slap on the hot concrete running from ride to ride and the scent of sunscreen drips off all the shivering, half-naked adolescents. Stretch-marked and beer-bellied, mothers and fathers lackadaisically watch over their sopping children. With bodies beyond the firm joys of youth, they still shudder with the first bracing chill and thrill of each stroke and gasp, goose-fleshed and glistening when it’s their turn to swim. In those cool waters sloshes the promise of pleasure palaces and leisure classes, desert oases and movie stars, numb languor and empty excess. Emptied out, they’re still dreamy to skaters who kill the surface and scrape the lips with hard wheels and grinding rails, but even those rebel Z-boys busting into abandoned houses have become just another industry.
Out of the sun, midnight teenagers hop padlocked chainlink: a redheaded protoslut with a black eye, a thin boy with nipple piercings, a pasty-skinned gothette, a bitter blond boy with glittery lipgloss, passing storebrand vodka and skinny-dipping in the shadowy water, its colour muted but still a rippling blue under the distant blue-white streetlights.
Wait long enough and the drift ends. A twilight chill, the sting of chlorine, a nightwatchman’s holler, the homicide squad’s sirens, a perfect moment passed, purchased on credit, interest paid with more than a sunburn.
This article was first published in the November 2014 issue.