"Eventually you have to reach the conclusion that these customized cars are art objects, at least if you use the standards applied to civilized society."
-- Tom Wolfe, "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby"
It's a show that promises everything -- tattoos, pin-up girls, sports, guns, bombs, superheroes, antiheroes, motorcycles and more. Custom cars from the Street Havoc Car Club will line the street in an opening-night event the gallery boasts will be "a greasy smudge on the White Linen Night roadmap." In fact, most of the above are part of an increasingly hot phenomenon called lowbrow art. A one-time aesthetic sleeper cell, lowbrow art has of late crashed the gates, turning major museums and galleries into de facto custom car shows, skateboard tracks, tattoo parlors and pin-up emporia in a culture clash unlike any since the Vandals and Goths sacked Rome. What's going on here?
The short answer is that American Muscle is Dan Tague's latest spectacle. Known in local art circles as a frenetic serial curator who usually operates slightly under the radar, turning up at odd times and places with off-the-wall menageries of oddities, Tague seems to have gone all out this time in his most high-profile effort to date. The title, American Muscle, refers to those testosterone-tinged Detroit muscle cars of yesteryear, the bulked-up Mustangs, Shelbys, GTOs, Corvettes and Camaros of the late 1960s through the late '70s, a gas-guzzling era of super-sized engines that came to a screeching halt when a certain Ayatollah took over Iran, abruptly putting the brakes on the Western world's oil supply.
But that's not the half of it. What lowbrow art is all about is pop culture at its most populist, a street-level form of expression ostensibly so untamed that it seems as if it could defy assimilation. But where does Tague, a thirtysomething product of local Catholic schools and the postmodernist hothouse that is the University of New Orleans art department, get his street creds? "I've always been into this stuff," he insists, citing childhood obsessions with cars and bikes. Yet Kustom Kulture, as lowbrow car culture is called, seems a far cry from the art world's pervasive postmodernism, an academic doctrine with a lexicon that is the verbal equivalent of a Masonic handshake: only the initiated could possibly get it. While much postmodern theory is actually insightful, in art it was never a comfortable fit. Like too-tight undies, it seemed to short-circuit the viscera, causing pressure on the brain, a head trip, a mind-body disconnect. So, might lowbrow art be a sign of rebellion?
"Absolutely!" says Tague, "Juxtapoz Magazine (the lowbrow bible) has no qualms about admitting that it's against that New York kind of highly intellectualized conceptual stuff." Considering that he's a native of the West Bank, where muscle cars and tattoos have never gone out of style, Tague's enthusiasm may not be so far-fetched after all. Still, rebellion often turns out to be the first step toward assimilation, as the vast vacuum cleaners of global commerce grind on, sucking up street culture and spewing out television series like the tattoo-themed reality show, Miami Ink, with robotic regularity.
But what about the show's artists -- who are those 20 or so people, anyway? Ranging from painters and sculptors to tattoo and pin-up artists, grease monkeys and skateboard freaks, it's a diverse bunch. There are some, however, who seem to epitomize the various sub-tribes. Among the motorheads of the Kustom Kulture clan, Dr. Wheelie, a 38-year-old Bywater resident and Tennessee native, seems a natural. "When I was just a baby, the very first word I spoke was 'wheel,'" Dr. Wheelie says as he stands amid the inventory of vintage Detroit cars of all ages and stages of transformation in his warehouse near the Industrial Canal. Not all are his, but it's an impressive sight. His work in the show is more enigmatic, a bomb casing with gleaming exhaust pipes and a Holley carburetor with a custom fourfold air intake, called Baghdad International Dragway.
Lory Lockwood, a photo-realist painter and fiftysomething Uptown lady extraordinaire, got sucked into American Muscle's slipstream by osmosis. "I started out painting reflections in water in the early 1990s, but I soon noticed all these shiny cars in my neighborhood with all these great reflections in chrome and paint." One thing led to another and then car freaks discovered her paintings, like the shiny chrome Corvette wheel in this show, and she's been busy ever since. Trained in academic and theoretical art, Lockwood these days finds fulfillment in lowbrow car shows.
"It's really fun," Lockwood says. Related sentiments are expressed by Los Angeles lowbrow art star Anthony Ausgang, or as he put it: "I decided to wipe my ass with certain aspects of the past and go beyond postmodernism's self-limiting coordinates." A son of European migrs, Ausgang has been a lowbrow car freak for most of his life. These days he is known for cartoon panels like The Great Catnip Draught depicting a stylized altercation between two anime-style felines hissing over a primer-gray '69 Camaro.
Among the usual suspects of Tague's inner circle, Tony Campbell and Matt Vis decked out an Airstream trailer with Vargas-style pin-up girls, and Tim Hailey is projecting videos of jet bikes on the wall. Erstwhile local lowbrow veteran Jimmy Descant proffers rocket sculptures made from vintage appliance parts, while ambitious lowbrow aspirant Blake Boyd, not to be outdone in the phallic symbol department, concocted a monumental, 8-foot-tall Priapus of sorts. Tattoo artists include Jamie Ruth of New York, whose 100 % American Muscle watercolor of a busty, anime-style bikini babe with a crimson Firebird makes a nice logo for the show, and Miami tattoo and tiki freak, Jaksin, who proffers a hot rod Tiki carving. Later in the month, on Aug. 18, Party Girl Productions' Vanessa Nieman hosts Rock, Rods, Kats and Pats, a tattoo fashion show at the gallery with lots of exposed skin and live music by Michael Hurtt and His Haunted Hearts.
Clearly, it's quite a circus. What does it all mean? In some ways, history may be repeating itself. In 1964, writer Tom Wolfe discovered youth culture through Kustom Kar gurus George Barris and Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and their worshipful adolescent minions. It was custom-car pioneer Barris who started substituting K's for C's, while Roth began the propagation of Kustom Kulture with his airbrushed T-shirts of freaky and monstrous figures in far-out hot rods, making him the godfather of today's Anthony Ausgangs. In his landmark essay, "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby," Wolfe astutely noted that the Kustom Kulture of the '60s was Dionysian, which is to say dark, gothic and fantastic, as opposed to the straight and rational, or Apollonian, pretenses of mainstream America. The year 1964 was also the year pop art, inspired by comics and mass media, conquered the mainstream art world. That happened because, like today, the prevailing trends had grown boring and long in the tooth. Timing was everything. Eventually pop was assimilated; America's modern Romans knew how to buy off any cultural threat and make it cute and harmless. But the lowbrow artists -- the Vandals and Goths storming the walls of American culture today -- are where much of the energy is now, and they also throw some of the best parties, so enjoy it while it lasts!
- Lowbrow artists like Anthony Ausgang (with his The Great Catnip Draught, pictured) drew inspiration from Kustom Kar gurus like Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, who introduced airbrushed T-shirts of freaky and monstrous figures in far-out hot rods.