The Road Less Traveled

One night in 1993, Harrod Blank dreamed he was taking pictures of people while driving in a van covered with cameras. Two years and 2,500 cameras later, Blank's dream was roadworthy. The result is his 1972 Dodge "Camera Van" covered with old press cameras, Hasselblads and 140 Super-8 film cameras. It is one of 14 uproariously lowbrow "art cars" on view in "Wild Wheels: Art for the Road," at the Petersen Automotive Museum.

Blank, born in Westminster and raised in Santa Cruz, got his camera affinity from his father, the documentarian and cinematographer Les Blank. "From the time I was 10, I was always in front of the camera or behind it." He has driven the Camera Van in parades across the country and has toured Germany and England, where he was mobbed. The van features a PA system for addressing motorists and pedestrians. "It's a moving tribute to artistic voyeurism," Blank says. Six hidden 35-millimeter Canons operated via dashboard buttons have captured such cinema verite dramas as a street drug deal and female flashers. Blank even spelled out the word "SMILE" with Kodak Instamatics on the van's roof. "After that my mom said, 'You're really obsessed.' "

Right. Another entry in the Petersen exhibit is Blank's first art car. It is the 1981 "Oh My God!," a 1965 Volkswagen Beetle decorated with lawn ornaments, mannequin heads, Mardis Gras King Cake plastic babies and other flotsam. Also on view is his 1998 music-themed "Pico de Gallo." Created for a Levi's print ad, the "Pico" is a 1963 VW Beetle festooned with piano keyboards for running boards and electric keyboards for bumpers. It also has 400 bells on swivel hooks, cymbal hubcaps, vinyl LPs and CDs and instruments, including an accordion, maracas and bongo drums. Oh, and the roof doubles as a performance stage.

Blank brings impeccable credentials to his role as guest curator-researcher for the "Wild Wheels" show. He has chronicled the art car phenomenon in documentaries broadcast on PBS and National Geographic and with two books, including "Art Cars" (Lark Books, 2002). "I thought there was something wrong with me, but I found other people who were like me and weirder," he says.

The one rule for art cars, Blank says, is that they be street legal. In his own lingo, his "Camera Van" is a "motif in relief," using a single type of item repeatedly. Indeed, many art cars have a second skin of textiles, buttons, beads or lawn ornaments. In this vein, the show features the "California Fantasy Van," encrusted with 5,000 brass items, and the "Glass Quilt," a VW Beetle covered in stained glass. Blank uses the term "fantasy cars" for autos transformed to resemble something other than a car. Examples in the show include "Eelvisa," a car representing a blue-haired punk female Elvis fan, and the "Telephone Car."

Visitors to the Petersen clutch their chests and gasp, and those who drive art cars get used to budgeting extra time for the curious. "Cops stop me to take a picture," Blank says. "In L.A., the car is who you are, but you're buying someone else's brand. An art car is [about] who you are and what you think."


"Wild Wheels: Art for the Road" is on display through May 26 at the Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles; (323) 930-CARS;

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