Set out the flares: It’s important to approach the subject of cars and art in L.A. with considerable caution. The road is dotted with potholes. We learned that the hard way. In 1984, the Museum of Contemporary Art opened a high-profile exhibition titled “Automobile and Culture” that chronicled the interplay between cars and art in Europe and the U.S. throughout the 20th century. To the surprise of many, masterpieces were few and far between. Minor works by minor artists filled the show, together with minor works by major artists, and the exhibition demonstrated just how incidental the car has been as an image for Modern artists.
Yes, automobiles and related paraphernalia are undeniably subjects in L.A. art. But they appear only in the way tulips turn up in 17th century Dutch still-life paintings or athletes in decorations on ancient Greek vessels — which is to say, because they were there. But that’s hardly unique to L.A. Even the king of the New York School, Willem de Kooning, painted the speed and dash of “Montauk Highway.”
What is important is not so much the car — the fabricated sheet metal and the bucket of bolts under the hood — but ineffable, abstract qualities like individual speed and personal dynamism that the automobile has brought to modern life. For artists, an automobile is the handmaiden of metaphor; what counts is the emotional and perceptual event.
Michael C. McMillen“The Central Meridian,
1981, mixed media
A central meridian is the line that runs down the center of a map. Michael C. McMillen’s excruciatingly detailed replica of the cluttered interior of a suburban garage, made specifically for the L.A. County Museum of Art, cleaves in two. On one hand, the old radiators, medicine chest, lawn mower, baby stroller, bowling trophies, out-of-date magazines, ‘50s Sylvania “halo lite” television and other castoffs from a society defined by mass consumption is like the public collection that accumulates in an art museum. (The Dodge Dart up on blocks in the middle of the garage is even a witty nod to Edward Kienholz’s “Back Seat Dodge ’38,” updated to McMillen’s generation.) On the other, this place for obsessive tinkering also doubles as a surrogate artist’s studio, mapping a labyrinthine inner world of infinite private imagination.
Edward Ruscha“Standard Station, Amarillo, Texas,"1963, oil on canvas
One strict rule for American painting after World War II asserted that art was the opposite of anything that might be associated with commercial or popular culture. Of course, conformity to a rigid rule for free expression embodied a certain irony. Ed Ruscha, in 1963 a 26-year-old transplant from Oklahoma City who was trained as a commercial graphic artist, took that nagging fact and ran with it. He painted a “standard” that was likewise ubiquitous — the roadside gas stations of the Standard Oil Co. Employing a crisp, commercial graphic style that backed a red, white and blue American painting with the glamorous spotlights of a Hollywood movie premiere, Ruscha broke every rule in the art book — making the standard uniquely his own.
Catherine Opie“Freeway Series,"1994-95, silver gelatin photographs
Catherine Opie’s photographs of soaring freeway overpasses are shot from below, are carefully cropped and emphasize the structures’ already monumental forms. Monochromatic, they look old-fashioned. The photographs recall nothing so much as 19th century explorers’ pictures of the Parthenon in Athens, the temples of Ramses II at Abu Simbel and other wonders of the ancient world. What gives them their subtle yet distinctive kick is our instant association of freeways with an idealized American future of nonstop progress and mobility, not a historical civilization fallen into ruin and shrouded with primitive mystery. Photographs, because they are linked through the lens to an identifiable moment, contain within them a fragment of time. Opie warps time with space in her pictures, to make a seamless, mind-bending Mobius strip.
Richard AnkromUntitled (Freeway Sign),2002, painted metal
A guerrilla work of public art, Richard Ankrom’s painting is an exact replica of a portion of a Caltrans sign, which he surreptitiously installed on an actual sign above the northbound Harbor Freeway in downtown Los Angeles, near 3rd Street. The real sign didn’t give adequate information on how to navigate from one freeway to the next. The added replica fixed that problem, directing motorists to the northbound Interstate 5. (Caltrans left it in place.) It is said that in ancient Greece the artist Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes so convincingly that birds pecked at it in a frustrated effort to eat; Ankrom’s trompe l’oeil painting fooled motorists’ eyes in a manner no less convincing, but far more satisfying.
Edward Kienholz“Back Seat Dodge ’38,"1964, mixed media
For a kid with a car, it’s all about the back seat — an elastic zone of domestic privacy. It takes a moment to realize that Edward Kienholz’s sculptural tableau of the kind of junker-automobile that was a symbol for teenage mobility and personal freedom is without a front seat. The hood, windshield and engine compartment are squashed up against the rear, where a couple made from chicken wire and papier-mâché grapple in a state of inebriated passion. (Beer bottles litter the Astroturf around the car.) The sculpture, with forlorn music emanating dimly from the radio, shocked 1960s audiences — as Kienholz knew it would. In a modern culture of conformity, how better to dramatize the fragile vulnerability of private life?
Charles Ray“Unpainted Sculpture (car wreck),"1997, fiberglass
Charles Ray’s sculpture is a full-size Pontiac Grand Am (circa 1991) fabricated from molded fiberglass and painted monochrome gray. It was made over the course of two years’ time by casting more than 100 pieces of an actual wreck, which the artist bought as salvage, and painstakingly fitting the pieces back together. The virtual absence of color and the slow construction process combine to contradict the split-second speed and brutal dynamism of the event that smashed and wrecked the car. The result is a very weird object — a slow-motion visual black hole. Partly it recalls the toy models that kids like to assemble; but as a sculpture to be examined, it also puts you in the position of roadside gawker, staring at a highway wreck and blocking the flow of traffic. Ray crafts a queasy psychological tangle that mixes up childhood fantasies and adult realities — and vice versa.