'Kulture' is culture, however you spell it

Curtains came down on the Munsters in 1966 — long before I was born.

So imagine my surprise Friday when I noticed the Munster Koach trundling down Main Street with a full-throated rumble. The 18-foot vehicle sported a brass radiator and fenders, pearly black paint and a deep red velvet interior — blood red, if you will, to fit the theme of the 1960s sitcom.

Brett Barris — the son of famed custom car designer George Barris, credited with the inception of the Batmobile as well as Drag-U-La from "The Munsters" — watched the hot rod being inched painstakingly into the Huntington Beach Art Center. This space will house "Kustom Kulture II," an exhibition spotlighting cars and all their guises, until Aug. 31.

The original Koach was auctioned off in the early '80s, but George authorized the construction of a second edition for the Hollywood Christmas Parade in 1984.

Being raised by the man who first spelled "custom" and "culture" with a "k" to make sure it stood out, Brett, 52, of Long Beach, describes the ensuing movement as cutting-edge and raw, adding, "It includes art, music, fashion — anything that is out of the norm and not cookie-cutter."

The Laguna Art Museum initially hosted "Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth, Robert Williams & Others" in 1993. The entire museum was utilized to display works by Robert Irwin, Ed Ruscha, Mike Kelley, Judy Chicago and others, many of which trickled into its satellite space at South Coast Plaza.

Car culture permeates Southern California, said Bolton Colburn, former director of the museum, and the show was an ideal opportunity to investigate its influence on the region's art.

"'Kustom Kulture' was the first piece of programming that Laguna Art Museum did that looked at the crossover of popular culture and the arts in Southern California," he said. "There was a huge response to the exhibition, and it was one of the best-attended shows in the museum's history."

Murmurs about a 20th-anniversary tribute at the Huntington Beach Art Center began in February. C.R. Stecyk, Paul Frank and Greg Escalante teamed up as co-curators for the event, which features work from artists and collectors.

Friday afternoon, the day before the show opened, I took a preview tour of the gallery. "Kustom Kulture II" ups the ante from beauty to edgy and popular to counterculture. Bikini-clad bombshells, Rat Fink (Mickey Mouse's alter ago), Surfite and a Tiki bar perched atop sand, with parts of a monster poking out, are only a few highlighted items.

"I was taken by the idea that the masters of this movement have had such an inspirational impact on a younger generation of artists," said Executive Director Kate Hoffman. "'Kustom Kulture II' has expanded from the original exhibit to include car culture, motorcycle culture and surf culture, touching the very heart of Huntington Beach's history and personality."

Escalante, 58, of Huntington Beach, voiced his agreement.

"Back in the day, if you were a surfer, you were considered a miscreant of society — a criminal," he said. "It was the same if you were a hot-rodder, a chopper-bike rider or bore tattoos."

Although artists produced avant-garde pieces and were courted by galleries, such work hardly, if ever, saw the insides of museums. The Laguna Art Museum was the first institution to take the step and, in turn, spurred on an entire creative movement.

Escalante remarked that the seed of this exhibition was planted by John-Paul Olson, who works at Hurley. He approached the trio with memories of his babysitter taking him to the show in 1993. Although he was only 5, the featured artwork made an impression and continues to impact Olson's aesthetic many years later.

Kustom Kulture, which took root among automobile enthusiasts, quickly encompassed surf, skateboard and tattoo culture, swelling under the influence of Julius the Monkey creator Frank, designer and tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy, surfing aficionado and cartoonist Rick Griffin and other trailblazers. This show is meant to investigate Orange County's role in the culture as a whole, according to Stecyk.

"It's about how Kustom Kulture has changed in 20 years so we can see the stuff that was left out and where the art movement has gone," Escalante said. "It's not a trip down memory lane."

Jason Maloney, a former Disney muralist from Newport Beach, contributed a surfboard that was cut to appear as though a shark had chomped a piece out of it. The board sports a picture of "Tippsy the Elephant" — a fusion of Dr. Seuss and Disney's Heffalump — which is also tattooed on Maloney's midriff.

"I look at a piano or guitar and see a piece of wood with strings, but given a wall or a canvas, I know what to do," the Keith Haring fan told me.

As a child, Maloney wasn't a fan of team sports and enjoyed "Pac-Man," "Donkey Kong" and other arcade games. Although the 38-year-old views cars simply as a way to get from one place to another, he identifies with the core values of Kustom Kulture. The Laguna Art Museum show provided the impetus by spotlighting people who have made a living from art that stands askew by depicting heavy metal lovers, surfers or punks.

"Rat Fink is Mickey Mouse's brother who lived in the basement," he said, bursting into laughter. "Mickey gets all the attention, and this guy is drinking beers. I relate more to him than the shiny one."

If You Go

What: "Kustom Kulture II"

Where: Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach

When: Noon to 8 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, noon to 6 p.m. Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday until Aug. 31

Cost: Admission is by donation

Information: http://www.HuntingtonBeachArtCenter.org, ArtCenterStaff@surfcity-hb.org or (714) 374-1650

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