MARCH/APRIL 2002

more feature articles:

Make-Up, Make-Up
The Nature of Make-up
by Amy Landesberg and Leslie Fitzpatrick

THE (new) ORDER OF THINGS

Art, Car Customizing, and Hybrid Dreams

by Gean Moreno

You're pressed up against a body, or a vehicle, or a piece of architecture. It's too soon to decide. It's not the first time that your mind reels back to Jann Kott's essay on the erotic imagination. You remember how involved eroticism is with proximity and approximations, with being pressed up against bodies, with the strange deformations that take shape as a result. You think that the correspondence between the cinematic and the erotic imaginations must lie in the pressing need they both have for the close-up shot and the immensities it creates, the reconfigurations of what in everyday life are neglected details. So the erotic imagination clings to its object the way the camera does. You cling to the mute piece of body or vehicle or architecture that is before you. It's titled Ahab.

Gavin Perry's paintings are framing devices, close-up shots. At the beginning, they offer a generic detail, a molecule extracted from a body that is no longer available for inspection. But molecules are tiny models of their source, unwitting mirrors. Looking at Perry's work is an active event; it entails a process of reconstruction, a sort of archeology back to the source. Materials acquire meaning. For instance, that his paintings are all rendered in the lush enamel car painters use is significant. That they're sprayed on yields meaning. That thin layers have been built up in Bond-O, an auto body filler, accounts for something. Slowly, through an accumulation of similarities, it quietly dawns on you that Perry's paintings are produced not only with the same materials but also in the same fashion as hot rods and lowriders.

So, you're pressed against a piece of a car, or a surrogate for one. You're in the realm of souping up and tricking out or nearby. This mute object has begun to yield information and, more importantly, to invite outside information to accrue around it. Whatever it is you know about car culture, about cars as objects of desire, about growing up watching your brother fix up his Impala or Camaro in the garage-it all begins to gain relevance here, to swell as part of the meaning of these paintings, to provide context and narrative threads to follow.

Perry belongs to a tradition of abstract painters working in an indexical mode. It is in the work of Ellsworth Kelly, of course, that this mode fully blossomed, and that we learned just how intertwined, really, are the thorny realities of abstraction and realism. The difference with Perry resides in the investment and need he places on the things he indexes. In other words, Kelly may have painted, say, a shadow under a stairwell, but the house itself, the architect who designed it, the city where it may be, the sex that may have taken place in it, were all incidental. What Kelly explored was merely the point of contact between the world and abstraction. Perry indexes in a different way: what he "depicts"-bits of fixed up cars-are mere portals into an entire subculture, into a community glued by specific desires and beliefs. And somehow he invites this entire subculture-or, at least, our myths about it-to play a role in the meaning his paintings embody. Perry's approach is guided by desire and nostalgia rather than by an analytical impulse, it's an effort to liken and confuse abstraction and tricking out. It's the obsessive and messy labor of a fan before it's a progress report on society; it's an upgrade of our penchants to pin posters over the bed, to collect obscure magazines, to set up a makeshift garage in the backyard long before it is an exploration of abstraction's porous boundaries.

Gavin Perry, Ahab, 2001, enamel and Bond-O on canvas, 72 by 84 1/2 inches (photo courtesy the artist).

Ahab (2000) is a luscious painting that at first sight you align with hard-edge and minimalist projects, but its glossy, impenetrable enamel surface disturbs any connections with art historical examples. You slowly become aware of its similarities with the surfaces of souped up cars. A slightly elevated plane, produced by patiently applying and sanding down Bond-O, reveals a connecting line to the world of garages and backyard do-it-yourself fix up jobs. It is also eroticizes the surface just enough to invite our sticky fingers to feel it up, the way the baroque glaze on a lowrider so seductively does. It's as if the painting wants to become the thing it is indexing. And its caramel consistency provides just the first layer of references. Because as soon as you draw these connections, you begin to consider what tricked out cars may mean, what they have to do with disaffection and desire, with the strangely unstable dynamics of masculinity.

Cars have quietly haunted art for a long time, starting probably with Picabia's machine drawings and his collection of automobiles and running through Pollock's fatal accident and Rauschenberg's tire print and Tony Smith's legendary drive on the New Jersey Turnpike. Recently, their presence has become more explicit. We have Peter Cain's paintings and Jason Rhoades's Impala SS project, Gabriel Orozco's altered Citroen and the lowriders in Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle's installations, Sylvie Fleury's and Charles Ray's smashed cars, the ubiquitous presence of the VW Westphalia used by Gregory Green, Kim Adams and Dan Peterman· The list can go on for pages. The more interesting development that has taken place in the last few years, however, is the engagement of certain artists with car culture, their desire to find a hybrid, protean practice that marries customizing and sculpture or painting, which confuses and confounds their differences.

Car customizing is an unregulated, uncontainable practice. A quick glance over the ravishingly opulent and hallucinatory reconfigurations of visual and car design protocols it has elaborated proposes that it's a field of contagion. Sci-fi, graffiti, comic strips, Christian iconography, graphic design, luscious Baroque glazes, jewelry, calligraphy, and plush furniture, to name just a few, all contaminate each other and car design. Permeability is the one constant trait amid the endless parade of stylistic variables in its unhinged heterotopic space. Or else, customizing can be understood as a force always pushing for its own hybridization and metamorphosis, sustained by a bottomless appetite to borrow from any available source in order to produce ever stranger and more counterfactual products. On their irreproachably sleek, seamless products, customizers coalesce elements that exist on different visual registers into disorienting stylistic amalgams, producing tumultuous palimpsests that often defy complete decoding.

This inherent desire to hybridize, to fuse various disparate vocabularies is, I think, what attracts younger artists to customizing and car culture. And beyond this is the fact that customizing has sharpened the idea of the modulated composite without the sharp breaks and discontinuities of the collage. That is, the viewer's gaze glides from one visual or design language to the next, oblivious to the seam where they join but still aware of the differences in vocabularies. In this way, customizing does what can be done digitally-re-articulate the world in light of the complex dynamic of our age of rampant hybridization-without leaving the realm of the physical or settling for virtual products. At work is an alchemical morphing of sources, a sort of molecular cross-breeding of disparate vocabularies. Customizing traffics in impure, sophisticated and defamiliarized mutant objects-which is what art seems to be interested in doing at the moment. Customizing, like cyborgs, electronic music and special effects, provides a generative model to think art through as we morph into an information, post-industrial, cybernetic society.

Although this engagement with car culture has energized a number of projects by younger artists, there is precedent: in particular, the surfaces of John McCracken's objects and Ken Price's glazed ceramics and maybe even some of Ed Ruscha's airbrushed backgrounds and Richard Prince's Hood paintings. The so-called 'fetish finish' can't be disassociated from LA car culture. Iconoclasts like von Dutch, Ed Roth and Robert Williams, pioneers of the SoCal hot rod scene, maintained a knotty relationship with the art produced in the area as they revolutionized American visual culture. Today, artists from everywhere have found inspiration in the customizers' attention to surface, their coolly sensual high end products, their personalization of the mass produced, their advanced technical skills and industrial materials.

Let's start at the wrong place: circle the "Che" in "Chevy" and consider what that may mean. Two icons, two ideologies, two incompatible notions of freedom, two antithetical worlds wrapped up in a tiny word. Opposites hybridized into a schizoid union. In the '60s, while he lived in Havana, Ernesto Guevara drove a 1960 Chevy Impala. Today, the vehicle is entombed in a Havana museum. It is also "entombed" in the Getty Center in LA-there is a photograph of it in the collection-where Rubén Ortiz Torres found it when he was invited to work on a project that responded to that institution's holdings.

Rubén Ortiz Torres, La Zamba del Chevy (detail), 2000, 3D installation with surround sound and 1960 customized Chevy (photo courtesy the artist).


For La Zamba del Chevy (2000), Ortiz Torres reconstructed Che's ride, added a set of hydraulics, and made a 3-D movie of the thing pirouetting (along with images of other customized cars in Havana and old postcards from the Spanish American War). The accompanying soundtrack is a song Ortiz Torres' father wrote for the '60s Student Movement in Mexico updated into a little techno ditty.

Circle the "Che" in "Chevy" again and don't think hybridization or schizophrenia, think cultural entropy, think of the deterioration of things of great cultural significance, of how they always cease to mean as much as they did originally or to mean at all. Think of Che the T-shirt decoration, the bumper sticker. Think of the protest song turned into fodder for college radio station line-ups. Think of the 3-D movie, a defiled and obsolete form if there is one. Think of Che sporting revolutionary 3-D glasses, twirling glow sticks to a techno zamba. Think of how these things-all careening down the entropic spiral-came together into a completely new thing. Circle the Che in Chevy and consider the connection between hybridization and entropy and what lowrider culture does.

Ortiz Torres interrogates this culture in order to investigate the condition of the alien and the concept of the border-and the notions of waste and renewal, or waste as renewal, of debasement as refuse turned on its head or vice versa. I wanted to begin by claiming that his practice has an anthropological backbone, but this is true only until his practice reveals itself as a polymorphous and multifaceted thing that may have no need or use for a backbone. Ortiz Torres has set up shop on the unstable territories of borderland culture, a slippery land of in-betweeness, where things are ineluctably bound to fuse and practices must remain flexible. It's a place where a baroque impulse to accumulate is fostered, and things expand and dissolve through constant crossbreeding.

While Ortiz Torres is clearly an heir to what was called identity politics, he's learned the lesson that evaded so many: that a strange deployment of materials, a quirky misreading of established meanings, a playful engagement with vernacular structures and languages, a reconfiguration of formal tropes, a willingness to treat little subjects (say, masculinity) while touching upon larger ones (globalism, colonialism, etc.), goes a long way toward assuaging the tedium didacticism oxygenates. Rather than treat us to a convoluted civics lesson or drag us through the endless unmasking of cultural critique, he plays semantic games, confuses meanings, probes strange materials and explodes stereotypes. He lets an alien be an alien, a Chicano an extraterrestrial, a low rider a UFO, and a sociocultural essay a sci-fi B movie. His Alien Toy (1999), a wildly deconstructing vehicle customized by "radical bed dance" world champion Salvador Munoz, is part Nissan pick-up truck, part spaceship, part Mad Max wicked bed, part border patrol, part robot menace, part model for splitting cells, and all commentary on the ineluctable tug of war to which vernacular icons and everyday language subject desire and syncretism. While Ortiz Torres' position on the absurdity and brutality of the hung-over colonial thinking that informs immigration policies and quotidian attitudes in so many places isn't lost, his work is tweaked into an interesting double-sided project. As it does its political thing, it invites us to ponder the hybrid impulse in art and in lowrider culture, the use for things that cultural entropy is slowly dragging into obsolescence, and the dynamics of masculinity and collaboration in a world of shifty signifiers.

Rubén Ortiz Torres, Alien Toy/La Ranfla Cosmica, 1997, border performance (photo courtesy the artist).


One of Luis Gispert's earliest pieces was I've Been Spending Hundreds Since They Had Small Faces (1999). It comprises five enlarged family snapshots encased in a gaudy faux-gold frame. All the images are of Gispert as a little boy either urinating (with the help of his mother) in public places or half-asleep at home pissing on himself. What is so telling about the piece is that it reveals just what is at the source of Gispert's entire project-the penis. But it's not the heroic Phallus, rapacious and indestructible, at full mast and throbbing. It's the limp penis, unable to contain its embarrassing fluids. It's the penis engaged in the very opposite of the money shot: involuntarily enacting its inadequacies, its failures, its underlining flimsiness. The Beckett-penis.

The specter of this emasculated organ looms so large that every piece Gispert has ever produced is an effort to hide it, to find a posture that negates its embarrassing presence. All of Gispert's objects must be muscular and aggressive, and his car fetishism doubles as an exploration of masculinity and posture, of being as theater, of the manly as something that nears an inverted Camp. Think Scarface played in Wu-Tang drag; the artifice involved in an emblem of dissent.

Luis Gispert, Flossing, 1999, chrome frame, rubber wheels, race seat, neon subwoofers, amplifier, Monster cable,138 by 68 inches (photo courtesy the artist).


Flossing (1999) is a soapbox car all chromed out, with a pair of working speakers to kick the bass, a car alarm with a key chain remote, neon rings, a racing seat, and an amp. A throbbing, sexy defiance and a studied sense of menace emanate from it. It's a boy's twinkling daydream executed on a dopeman's budget. It could be the work of any adolescent already aware of the slithering member that is quietly approaching. This is, of course, the same dead worm that lives beneath the posturing of Hip Hop and car culture; beneath, in fact, the gestures of all those who know or can intimate just how ungraspable, insipid, and merciless is power's amorphous body. Fending it off often involves a belligerent attitude, senseless bad boy behavior, 20" chrome rims, indefatigable pimpin' and mad bling bling-an attitude made portable by the ear-blasting stereo system of Amplifying the Phantasmagorical [sic] Nature of Things, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Love the Bass (1999), a suitcase equipped with a 15" woofer and an amplifier.

Rubén Ortiz Torres, Amplifying the Phantasmagorical Nature of Things, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Love the Bass, 1999, suitcase, felt, speakers, amplifier, Monster cables, 22 by 17 by 6 inches (photo courtesy the artist).


While Gispert's subject or obsession is the relationship of posture to masculinity, of gesture to power, his methodology borrows freely from the hybrid impulse of car culture. He has learned something about grafting desire and dissent onto the mass-produced object and the rampantly disseminated image; something about posture as nuanced articulation, ornamentation as an open semiotic field, and defiance as a rap-video-vaudeville-in-progress, at once sad and necessary. In recent projects like Remix (Extended Beats) and Remix (Bonus Beats) (both 2001), Gispert marries car accessories-racing seats, rims, speakers, dashboard paneling, etc.-with gangsta wear, modern design and even good old minimalist objects.

Luis Gispert, Remix (Bonus Beats), 2001, hardwood, leather, fur, resin, speakers, rhinestones, dimensions variable (photo courtesy the artist).

In the process, he razes boundaries indeterminate and chips at the mortar that keeps established meanings anchored, while remixing and remastering design and visual lexicons. These works are installations of various objects that are displayed like the booty of a Friday night looting of the strip club parking lot. Ali Baba descending on Solid Gold. These objects, odd mutants of car accessories, sit on green screen cinematic fields insinuating perhaps that they're enticing enough to survive against any backdrop, in any context, wrapped in their aura of caustic defiance. With their elegant, clean curves, they posture like extensions of the hyperbolic male drive needed to produce them. They embody the ideas of being as theater, of masculinity as posture, and of the construction of pristine, hybrid objects as a way to claim a stake in a world that is nothing but equivocal signifiers and monolithic identities that are quickly crumbling into the unstable swamplands of an even Newer World Order.

 

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