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ART REVIEW : Hot Rod Hero Worship : ‘Kustom Kulture’ Is a Loud Crash Without Impact

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At a time when the most intriguing art freshly interprets unlikely aspects of pop culture, it makes perfect sense that an art museum would look at the Southern California subculture of hot rodders and car customizers in the context of the art it influenced.

The trouble with “Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Robert Williams and Others,” at the Laguna Art Museum through Nov. 7, is that the show comes off as genial boosterism rather than cultural analysis. Myths and legends loom large, and no one seems to be on hand to give ‘em a kick in the pants.

The show, which is also at the museum’s South Coast Plaza satellite location in Costa Mesa, contains a ton of great stuff (car bodies, cartoons, decals, T-shirts, advertisements, eccentric homemade machines, guns, a refrigerator door, drawings, paintings and sculpture) that lends itself to any number of forms of study, from the history of ornament to the patterns of preteen rebellion.

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But the handsome catalogue, with essays by guest curator Craig Stecyk and others, is drenched in gee-whiz hype. Most disappointingly, the connection between the social and aesthetic attitudes of the car nuts and those of the two generations of artists represented (including Billy Al Bengston, Judy Chicago, Robert Irwin, Jim Shaw and Mike Kelley) is never adequately probed.

The exhibition centers on three seminal figures, reflecting the adolescent hero worship at the heart of car culture. In his catalogue essay, guest curator Craig Stecyk rhapsodizes over the “economy of line, the sense of proportion, the implied movement and its lyrical perfection” shared by the Big Three, as well as the “hard-edged, cynical bent” of their narrative styles, which he compares to such dark visions of L.A. as the novels of Raymond Chandler and TV’s “Dragnet.”

Von Dutch (born Kenneth Howard) was just a kid when he dreamed up the “flying eyeball” motif in the late ‘30s--a pop paean to visceral experience if ever there was one. He also turned pin-striping--once simply a means of emphasizing the contours of a vehicle--into freestyle linear tracery, enlarged the scope of stylized flame imagery and crafted intricately ornamented guns of his own design. His paintings, like “Good-Bye Cruel World” (a human arm emerging from the bowl of a meat grinder extruding human flesh and a staring eyeball) tend toward the comically surreal.

Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, who built display-quality molded fiberglass cars in the ‘60s, is the marketing genius of the group. (In “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby,” Tom Wolfe aptly dubbed him “the Salvador Dali of the movement.”) Roth’s “rat fink” logo, a toothy, slobbering rodent with projecting eyeballs like late ‘50s headlights, was exquisitely in tune with the “outsider” self-image of every grubby kid lurching toward adolescence.

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His Weirdo and Monster T-shirt designs feature desperate-looking grotesque creatures rising out of the tops of cars belching stylized plumes of smoke. But what does a draftsman whose “texts” include such relentlessly dumb classics as “Evil spelled backward is Live” do for a grown-up encore?

Robert Williams, who formerly worked for Roth as a designer of Monster shirts and magazine ads, also indulged his elaborately unbuttoned fantasies and off-the-wall humor (“Hey, it’s Wednesday . . . let’s go see ‘em execute oddballs at the shopping center parking lot!”) in the burgeoning field of ‘60s underground comics.

Williams’ extraordinarily detailed paintings have evolved from art history-sanctioned illusionistic formats to the cartoon-derived fragmented space and hyper-catastrophic style of “A White-Knuckle Ride for Lucky St. Christopher” (1991). Voluptuous nude women frequently serve as visions or taunts for the male figures in Williams’ works. It takes a close and persistent reader of these paintings (and their tongue-in-cheek, triple-decker titles) to perceive his sense of humor and irony; the men in these works are just poor bastards in the thrall of their hormones and hopeless dreams.

More troubling are the iron crosses (the German military decoration adopted by the Nazis) among Roth’s decals, and the small recent painting by the Pizz (“Eye Kampf: Salute to the Holy Trinity of Von Dutch, Big Daddy Roth and Robert Williams”) in which an eyeball in a winged helmet and spiked boots gives a straight-armed salute.

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The innate conservatism of car culture--with its belief in exacting, precision work, a pantheon of heroes, women as decorative accouterments, macho contests of speed and strength, and the primacy of representational art--is addressed somewhat by Williams’ paintings, but not by the exhibition.

The transfer of car body aesthetics to the “Finish Fetish” artists’ investigations with synthetic paints, acrylic and plexiglass is represented by works like DeWain Valentine’s “Pink Top” (1967) and Billy Al Bengston’s lacquer painting, “Lady for a Night” (1970). A poster advertising a 1969 car rally with a roll call of well-known artists’ names reminds the viewer that these guys really were into the scene.

Viewed in this context, there is a certain poignancy about the metallic paint and plaid patterning Von Dutch used as a background in “The Square Rainbow,” or Williams’ painting of a gleaming red mechanistic torso (it looks like a Hans Bellmer sculpture rebuilt by car designer Harley Earl) in “Ernestine and the Venus of Polyethylene.” These guys took their vision so far and no further; other artists in the same subculture proved to be the real outlaws, dreaming up ways of using the sensuous new materials to focus on the actual experience of looking .

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The younger artists in the exhibition generally pay homage to the masters’ subject matter or styles. Drag racing images and grosser-than-thou variations on Rat Fink abound, but the most compelling works tend to be deadpan and anti-heroic (like Jim Shaw’s “Horror A Vacui,” George Goodrich’s “Surfing Jungle” and Mary Fleener’s “Snax n’ Magnet”).

Someday, another exhibition will deal more artfully with the questions posed by the intersection of art and car culture. But the youthful energy and generous inclusiveness of “Kustom Kulture”’ make it the quintessential summer show.

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* “Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, Robert Williams and Others,” at the Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach, (714) 494-6531--and the museum’s South Coast Plaza satellite , 3333 Bristol St., Suite 1000, Costa Mesa -- through Nov. 7. Museum closed Mondays; satellite open every day.

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