Institute of Contemporary Art

“CUSTOMIZED: Art Inspired by Hot Rods, Low Riders and American Car Culture,” was a vast improvement on the Guggenheim's “Art of the Motorcycle.” Organized by assistant curator Nora Donnelly, this ambitious exhibition featured nearly seventy works in all media, roughly divided into three sections: drawings and paintings by car customizers; photographs documenting the community surrounding hot rods and low riders; and examples of contemporary artists' appropriations of the look and attitude of car culture

The ICA's main gallery housed work from the '30s through the '50s by hot-rodder artists, who both customized old cars and made art about their sport. Among the greatest of these was Kenneth Howard (aka Von Dutch). the California mechanic who pioneered the art of pinstriping, flaming, and caricaturing cars in the '40s. Though he was unfortunately represented here only by a surreal snake-charmer that he had painted on an enameled phonograph in 1955, his renegade spirit and flying eyeball logo pervaded much of the work. LA poster artist Coop (known for his leather-jacketed devils) paid explicit tribute to the late master in his 1996 silkscreen Von Dutch: The comic-book caricature (reminiscent of Lichtenstein's Pop action figures) shows the pinstriper as an intergalactic astronaut posing before a dark, otherworldly landscape. Custom car builder Ed “Big Daddy” Roth monumentalized his “Rat Fink” (a bug-eyed, human-footed giant rat that became a drag-strip fad in the '60s), complete with swarming flies, in recent canvases and two silkscreens. Hot-rodder Robert Williams, a master of lowbrow art, contributed manic surreal canvases featuring high-speed races and crashes, such as Hot Rod Race, 1976.

In East LA's Hispanic communities in the '50s and '60s, cars were rigged low and customized with paint and expensive details, transforming the mass-produced automobile into a unique expression of luxury and style. Rubén Ortiz Torres's eight-minute DVD Custom Mambo, 1992, layers shots of a Chicano gathering with images of low riders, whose hydraulic systems enabled them to “dance on command,” and buxom, scantily clothed, gyrating women. Meridel Rubenstein's series of color prints captures a very different scene. In Dave's Dream (Irene Maria and Dave Jaramillo, San Juan, New Mexico), 1980, mother and son sit proudly in the crimson-upholstered interior of their cherished 1969 Ford LTD, which had belonged to the late Dave père. The elaborately customized and painted car, which stands in stark contrast to the spartan home behind it, bears an image of the family floating above a mystical landscape.

What kept the show from verging on kitsch or the merely documentary were the works of several contemporary artists who draw on the souped-up engines and restyled exteriors of hot rods for inspiration. Sylvie Fleury's 1999 installation The She Devils On Wheels Headquarters recreates a car club for women. with stiletto heels and an issue of Vogue interspersed among hubcaps, tires, and oilcans. And Richard Prince's mixed-media painted reliefs based on customized car hoods evoke the best works of Ellsworth Kelly and John McCracken.

“Customized” brought to the forefront the social aspects of car culture while introducing and showcasing a lot of first-rate art. The hot-rodders' critiques of cultural conformity and the low riders' transformation of their cars into escape vehicles makes for a spirited dialogue with contemporary artists' celebrations of the car.

Francine Koslow Miller