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High speed hotrods and 'lowbrow' paintings populate the Petersen Automotive Museum's ode to Juxtapoz magazine

High speed hotrods and 'lowbrow' paintings populate the Petersen Automotive Museum's ode to Juxtapoz magazine
"Hot Rod Race," 1976, by Juxtapoz co-founder Robert Williams. (Collection of Gwynned Vitello)

They didn’t set out to create the most popular art magazine in the country. When the founders of Juxtapoz magazine published their first issue in 1994, they just wanted to create an outlet for “lowbrow” artists that had been excluded from the mainstream art world. These included artists from various outsider communities, including hot-rodders, graffiti writers, the tattoo scene, skate and surf culture, psychedelia, underground comics and pop-surrealism, to name a few. The initial print run of 23,000 quickly sold out, with the magazine’s popularity increasing with each issue. By the late 2000’s, its circulation would reportedly eclipse that of more established art magazines such as ArtForum, Art in America and Art News.

Recently, “Auto-Didactic: The Juxtapoz School,” an exhibition of art cars and art about cars, opened at the Petersen Automotive Museum showcasing the work of 50 artists spanning six decades, including those that influenced the magazine as well as those who have come of age since Juxtapoz burst onto the scene almost 25 years ago. “All these very talented people who didn't have a chance down the street here, they found a home in Juxtapoz,” pioneering lowbrow artist and Juxtapoz co-founder Robert Williams said at the show’s opening, gesturing toward the Los Angeles County Museum Art, just a stone’s throw from the Petersen.

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A customized car by artist Kenny Scharf
A customized car by artist Kenny Scharf (Ted Seven)
Sandow Birk, "The Surrender of O.J. Simpson," 1994.
Sandow Birk, "The Surrender of O.J. Simpson," 1994. (From the Collection of Barbara and Zach Horowitz)

But the Juxtapoz story goes back even further than the magazine’s founding. The previous year, a wildly popular exhibition, “Kustom Kulture,” opened at the Laguna Art Museum, bringing together a motley crew of artists whose work was loosely based around the automobile, including Williams and hot-rodders such as Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Von Dutch, then-emerging LA artists including Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, alongside Robert Irwin and other “finish fetish” artists of the 1960s, who brought sleek auto aesthetics into a fine art context.

According to Williams, the automotive theme was just a ploy to get a bunch of under-recognized “feral” artists — a term he prefers to “lowbrow” — some recognition from the institutional art world. “Some of my friends ingratiated themselves down at the Laguna Museum,” he said when reached by phone the morning after the opening, “and talked them into putting on a car art show, so all these disenfranchised artists could slip into a museum under the pretext of automobile art.”

The show broke attendance records at the museum and gathered momentum as it traveled around the country. Emboldened by its success, a group of artists and collectors, including Williams and his wife Suzanne, artist, writer, and surf and skate historian Craig Stecyk and gallerist Greg Escalante, approached Fausto Vitello, the publisher of skateboarding magazine Thrasher, about putting out an art magazine.

The rest is history.

Mark Ryden, "The Grand Motor Car," 2014
Mark Ryden, "The Grand Motor Car," 2014 (Porterhouse Fine Art Editions and Mark Ryden)

“Auto-Didactic” starts off by setting the stage, featuring artists and work that predates Juxtapoz, before focusing on artists whose work bears the influence of the magazine.

“We didn't want to do another Kustom Kulture show,” says exhibition co-curator Joseph Harper, who organized the show with Stecyk. (A follow-up to the original, “Kustom Kulture 2,” opened in 2013 at the Huntington Beach Art Center.) “The strength of that show was them breaking the barrier, going into the art museum. This is bringing the art that came out of that back into the car realm.”

All the classics are here: Von Dutch’s bright orange Kenford Truck, emblazoned with his signature flying eyeball painted on the front; a larger-than-life size statue of Rat Fink, Ed Roth’s grotesque, bug-eyed answer to the family friendly Mickey Mouse; as well as paintings by Williams that fuse comic-book style action scenes with his hyper-realistic style. Next to Williams’ maximalist canvases are small but captivating abstract paintings by his wife Suzanne that distill hot-rod pinstriping to its essence of line and color. The contrast between their two styles epitomizes the range of work on view.

The other spokes of the Kustom Kulture wheel are all represented: Zap Comics’ first issue, illustrated by counter-culture cartoonist R. Crumb; Rick Griffin’s psychedelic rock posters; a striking painting of a flaming skull from the godfather of the “Cholo Style” of graffiti, Chaz Bojorquez; Gary Panter’s exuberant punk painting. Anthony Ausgang’s “Salome” is a cartoonish take on the classic Old Master subject, here represented by a cat who holds the head of a feline John the Baptist, his headless body still perched in a hot-rod. Kenny Scharf, an artist who has straddled the worlds of street art and the museum since his days on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the early 1980s, is represented by a 1959 Eldorado, the exterior covered in retro space-age cartoons, while the trunk is filled with kitschy toys, figurines and a disco ball.

R.K. Sloane, "The Rat Fink Experience," 1994.
R.K. Sloane, "The Rat Fink Experience," 1994. (Collection of Damon and Alicia Premer)

The second half of the show features work produced since Juxtapoz gave artists license to pursue forms of art that were rejected by the institutional art world, including the car. Nicola Verlato’s “Car Crash 3” from 2013 depicts a bikini-clad body flying through space, having been recently ejected from a car. Painted with a sense of theatrical realism, the woman’s contorted body resembles that of a Baroque saint. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Patricia Piccinini’s “Deathmatch” from her “Car Nuggets” series of 2004, a deep red shiny orb that sports a small car fin on top. All killer, no filler, it captures the car’s formal essence without all the useful parts such as a motor or wheels. Providing a somber note of reflection is Shepard Fairey’s 2014 silkscreen “Endless Power,” which depicts a fuel pump over his signature “obey” motto. It draws attention to the power those in the oil industry wield, especially as this finite resource becomes scarcer.

A quarter of a century after it was founded as a refuge for artists that didn’t fit in with the establishment, Juxtapoz seems to finally have secured some recognition for the “mulligan stew of all these talented people that were kind of disenfranchised from academia,” as Williams puts it. But now the question is, can you still be an outlaw, outsider artist once you’ve made it to the inside? For Williams, the sweet spot is in the struggle.

“It’s more vital and better when it’s crawling its way up to the top,” he told me. “When it gets to the top, it’s gonna get tender and caring and acceptable, and then in 50 years, something else will come along and push it aside.”

Nicola Verlato, "Car Crash 3," 2012.
Nicola Verlato, "Car Crash 3," 2012. (Collection of Gregg and Amanda Spatz)

“Auto-Didactic: The Juxtapoz School”

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When: Through June 2019.

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Where: 6060 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles

Price: General admission prices are $16 for adults, $13 for seniors and students with ID, $8 for children ages 3 to 12.

Info: 323-930-CARS, petersen.org/juxtapoz.

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