Piecing together a picture of ‘Car Culture’ at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art

"Tribute," a 1964 Studebaker Avanti hand painted by Earl Shepherd in 2015.
“Tribute,” a 1964 Studebaker Avanti hand painted by Earl Shepherd in 2015.
(Courtesy of OCCCA)

Enter Orange County Center for Contemporary Art and you’ll find a full-size Studebaker Avanti parked in the middle of the gallery space.

Artist Earl Shepherd named the car “Tribute” to honor the history and design of the 1964 model created by Raymond Loewry. Starting from the rear on the passenger side, Shepherd’s hand-painted design travels from Palm Springs to Los Angeles marking off the car’s relevant social landmarks like the now-demolished Chi Chi Room, the Pink Pussycat and Musso & Frank Grill. The driver’s side is dedicated to those who raced Avantis and set records at the racetrack in the Bonneville Salt Flats.

“Tribute” is one of the pieces in OCCCA’s “Car Culture” show, which includes the work of 28 artists.

A front-view of "Tribute" displayed at the L.A. Classic Auto Show.
A front-view of “Tribute” displayed at the L.A. Classic Auto Show.
(Courtesy of Earl Shepherd

Center for Contemporary Art staff reached out to Bryan Barcena, assistant curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, to jury the exhibition about a year ago.

“It was really important that the show be representative of not just this idyllic version of car culture — a 1950s glorified American car culture — but more representative of the real relationships that people have with cars and what it means in a place like Southern California,” Barcena said.

As Barcena looked through submissions, he saw a complex relationship to cars.

The result was art from California and across the country. Works vary from lowrider culture, personal family photos to a motorcycle voting station.

Santa Ana artist Hugo Almanza created a diorama of classic cars at a picnic paying homage to the lowrider community. The diorama’s park landscape was built on top of an eating tray and features his collection of mini-scale classic cars.

Collages from Luis Genaro Garcia’s series “Cruising L.A.’s Political Landscape” deal with civil rights violations.

In “No Justice No Peace 1992,” Garcia placed a 1992 Chevy Caprice cruising the landscape made up of 2017 and 2018 Los Angeles Times news stories about police brutality. His work connects and compares past and present politics.

The longtime South Central art educator said in the show’s virtual reception that he created the pieces from the point of view of an educator.

"No Justice No Peace 1992," made in 2018, is a depiction of the L.A. riots using current headlines about police shootings.
(Courtesy of Luis Genaro Garcia)

Vanessa Viruet’s work explores the language of flags and how it constructs identity, particularly in car racing, gang banging or gay cruising.

Research for pieces like “Race Flags: Unsportsmanlike Conduct and Disqualified” led her down a history of car racing and NASCAR. A black flag with a white cross signifies disqualified.

“NASCAR is very well known for their Confederate flag waving,” Viruet said. “The resemblance between the black flag with the white ‘x’ and the Confederate flag was just uncanny to me.”

“Race Flags: Unsportsmanlike Conduct and Disqualified," 2017, by Vanessa Viruet.
(Courtesy of Vanessa Viruet)

Rhiannon Valenti works with oil paintings and dolls. Her “Drivin’ Thru” features Barbie dolls in a vintage dune buggy with a Carl’s Jr. burger plopped on the rear.

“I wanted to capture the feeling of fun, playfulness and California driving,” Valenti said.

She thought about how drive-through restaurants are a big part of American culture. However, when Barcena saw the painting, he said he thought about how young women have limited access to car culture versus the variety of toy cars young men have access to.

The show, open until March 20, is available for viewing online through a 360-degree tour or in-person by appointment.

“Drivin’ Thru,” 2014, by Rhiannon Valenti
“Drivin’ Thru,” 2014, by Rhiannon Valenti.
(Courtesy of Rhiannon Valenti)

If you go

What: Car Culture

Where: Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, 117 North Sycamore St., Santa Ana

When: Online 360-degree tour or by appointment only Thursdays through Sundays, ending March 20

Cost: Free

Info: (714) 667-1517,

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