A 2000 story for LA Weekly. Can’t find the printed version, and their digital archives don’t seem to go back that far, so the title given by the editor is missing. “Moving Art” sounds vaguely familiar, so I’m using that.
BY AL RIDENOUR
Usually these things are seen like a fleeting hallucination. Through a break in the camouflage of oncoming traffic, it flashes by, leaving you in neck-craning bewilderment. Yes, it DID look like a van piggybacking some sort of parasitic insect the size of a Volkswagen, and if you ask around, you just might reassure yourself with accounts of other sightings. Every community has its own stories: could be a Ford pickup covered in artificial leaves and spiders, a Jaguar plastered with Day-Glo flower stickers or a ’64 Mercury bristling with toys and bones. It’s not yet clear, not quite real, but there’s some new figure in our folklore. In the agrarian age, it might have been the village idiot or the eccentric lord, but now it’s rolled into the automotive age, and they’re calling it the “art car.”
This Saturday, Los Angels Cultural Affairs is corralling roughly a dozen of these inspired renegades in a one-day public showing of four-wheeled oddities atop the Los Angeles Theater Center parking garage. The “Wheels” exhibition is part of “Living Roots,” a three-day conference on folk and traditional arts, now in its third year. Approximately 40 highly customized vehicles will be on view, ranging from relatively well recognized types such as low-riders and custom-rodders to some of their more unfathomable art car cousins.
While the aesthetics and skills of hot-rodders and low-riders have been with us long enough now to be passed on in the manner of traditional folk art, those who’ve created art cars frequently have done so within a vacuum, often completely unaware that anyone but themselves has ever attempted such a project.
Longtime car artist Philo Northrup, who’ll be showing his GMC pickup adorned with steel flames and Spanish tiles at the conference, points out that creators of art cars often come from very remote worlds. The term “art car” he says, “casts a wide net.” What they are NOT may be easier to define. He observes that art cars “are distinct from parade floats, in that they are licensed, insured automobiles that artists use as a canvas and exhibit to anyone who’ll bother to look up. Their context is the shopping market, the highway, the street,” he says, “and that gives the artist a direct connection with his audience.” Northrup also coordinates San Francisco’s West Fest, one of the half dozen regional gatherings of art cars around which a significant community is consolidating. The largest of these events, the “Roadside Attractions” show in Houston, is now in its tenth year, having drawn 240 participating artists in 1997.
The network of car artists has been vastly expanded by recent media coverage in LA Times, New York Times, Life, CNN, Smithsonian Magazine, as well as Germany’s Stern, and by the dozens of websites now dedicated to the subject. One of the primary forces behind this media interest has been the documentation provided by filmmaker, photographer and author Harrod Blank, who will be participating in a panel discussion at “Living Roots”, as well as showing his films and photographs on the subject.
Blank, who began work on his first art car around 18 years ago, now drives a 1972 Dodge Van tiled with over 1,700 cameras (including a few fully functional models used to capture candid reaction shots). His film and companion book, Wild Wheels, as well as the more recent documentary Driving the Dream, which aired on National Geographic Explorer, portray the car artists as he found them on rambling cross-country treks, guided in part by rumors he gathered of other cars as “crazy” or “ugly” as the one Blank himself was driving. Even as an “art car movement” evolves, what remains powerful in these films is not so much the undeniable ingenuity of the artists but often the poignancy of their isolation, which often turns out to be haunted by tragedies only forgotten when the artists’ hands are busy with their art.
Blank credits his sympathetic eye to his own late-bloomer status and some painful years during which work on his car took the place of a consensual teenage reality devoted to scoring touchdowns and scoring pussy. Eventually his isolation developed an edge, and by the time of his graduation from UC Santa Cruz in 1986, he had embraced his “alien” status with outgoing gestures such as his punning appearance at college graduation with face and body dyed an extraterrestrial green.
While car artists normally enjoy a sort of jester’s immunity, Blank notes that the act of tampering with such an important status symbol as the automobile can aggravate very real hostility. In the 50 or so cities in which he’s driven his creation, he’s collected a number of souvenirs of this resentment. True to form, Los Angeles indeed provided a Porsche-driving yuppie who literally spit in disgust on Blank’s car, while Berkley mustered up a posse of “feminist vigilantes” who beat his car with baseball bats. He’s also had a bottle thrown through his windshield and been ticketed by a cop for towing a two-foot-long toy trailer without a license.
The aggressive spirit of the car artist’s battle against the status quo glowers from the road-warrior-style machine driven by Living Roots exhibitor Chuck Hunt. Reconfigured by blowtorch and buried under a reckless array of animal bones and junkyard scraps, this ’64 Mercury is nicknamed “The Grape” because of a long obscured coat of purple paint. “The Grape,” Hunt says, “can sit at a green light for three fucking minutes, and no one’s gonna honk at it. It looks like the kind of thing that eats cats!” Yet the Grape more often produces smiles, and even gifts to be added to the assemblage, such as the mummified squirrel left anonymously by a donor with an eye for Hunt’s style. Yet whatever response the vehicle provokes, Hunt obviously finds this secondary to what the car means to him. “Every piece on the Grape is a little piece of friend, a piece of my life, a memory.”
Paul de Valera, who’ll be driving the toy- and stuffed-animal-bedecked “PontiWreck” to the show, has actually had his car set on fire, an act he says, “which only makes it stronger.” He finds it curious that others can find in his car some sort of belligerent statement, when he insists that the project “says nothing. It’s about a car with a bunch of toys on it. I had toys; they were cheap in large quantities, so I thought, why not?”
For all their ragged goofiness, the art cars undeniably push some buttons. Maybe it’s because their owners are breaking the rules of engagement — because they assert a right to express themselves outside accepted channels. These outsiders aren’t renting billboards, ads, or airtime; they aren’t negotiating a publishing deal or wheedling their way into a galleries to express themselves. They just hop in their car and run some errands. The car talks — they drive — it’s not fair.
Worse still they violate a sacred prime-time teaching, the belief that individuality can be factory-installed by GMC, Honda, or BMW. It’s not mere vandalism they commit; they’re calling down the wrath of the gods! Stephani Barish, who’ll be showing her ’84 Volvo GL ornamented with Etruscan motifs, recalls her parent’s warnings that it would be “dangerous to stand out on the freeway,” warnings she put aside the day she first attacked her car with paint. “It was this fantastic moment of liberation,” she says. “I was painting with abandon, it was so great — standing there, thinking: I can mess this up. It’s mine; I don’t care.”
Like tattoos, the creation of art cars often mark times of transition, moments when action triumphs over caution. Amanda Jensen ascribes the creation of the “Jungle Truck” she will be showing to a “fortuitous personal inability to achieve full adult maturity.” Its lush vegetation grew from a collection of dashboard ornaments that blossomed over outside of her vehicle shortly after a risky but invigorating move to Los Angeles. And like the tattoo, her art car inevitably prompts the same objection: “but you have to live with it!”
This heart-on-the-sleeve commitment is unsettling to many. “Don’t get so attached; think of the trade-in,” is one of the most common objections the car artists report. The law of serial monogamy seems pervasive. The idea of market value is insidious. Our car ownership reflects our mating patterns — which reflects something worse. Some kind of sickness, this “trade-in” mentality, this morbid preoccupation with the liquidation of assets. And for this, the art car — at least for some — can be a tonic.