By Brian Feinzimer
By Charles Lam
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Joel Beers
"Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth, Robert Williams and Others" opened at the Laguna Art Museum in July 1993. The show proved to be pivotal to the movement, illustrating Southern California custom-car culture's influential reach throughout the 1940s and beyond.
Do-it-yourself is a ubiquitous philosophy in the proto-punk world. From art to automobiles as art, lowbrow art—while once seen as counterculture, defiant, anti-museum and underground—has saturated our everyday. "Kustom Kulture" served well beyond its purpose, not only helping to label and spur the movement as a whole, but also acting as impetus to future DIY generations and artists.
Now, 20 years later, curators (and artists with their own DIY ethic) C.R. Stecyk III and Paul Frank, along with lead organizer Greg Escalante, present "Kustom Kulture II," which will grace the Huntington Beach Art Center starting this Saturday. And the purpose is the same as the original: document, display, inspire.
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"Good to see you, my friend," Escalante says, reaching out to Frank, who had just arrived. The lanky Stecyk is also there, and the three men stand in a checkerboard-floored garage attached to a wire warehouse somewhere in Santa Ana. Curios, collectibles and rarities—hula girls and Rat Fink figures, plus Ed Roth surf helmets—occupy every available surface of the room. It's a shrine to the automobile, serving as a protective hull for everything from a red Porsche 356 A Speedster cabriolet to multiple hot rods to the collection's crown jewel: the Surfite, a tiny, sunshine-yellow buggy carrying a matching surfboard. It was built from scratch in 1964 by artist/pinstriper/custom-car designer Roth, but looks as though it could stand in as a prototype beach mobile even today—and it'll be the centerpiece of "Kustom Kulture II."
"When I look back at that first show, I couldn't believe how good it was," explains Escalante. "And no one could ever do a show that high of quality again due to the fact that prices of the art are so much higher now. . . . The idea of this show wasn't to do a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It is a tribute to the 20-year anniversary, but it's also an update and expansion."
"Kustom Kulture II," Escalante explains, will feature important, overlooked artists such as Basil Wolverton, George Barris, Don Ed Hardy, Hudson Marquez (creator of Cadillac Ranch), Phil Garner and Margaret Keane. "To sum it up," Escalante continues, "this show fills in some gaps, expands the range of examination and illustrates how far the movement has come."
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COOP, LA-BASED HOT-ROD ARTIST: "I was in the original 'Kustom Kulture' show—I had one of my first large paintings, one 4-foot-by-8-foot piece, hanging next to the ZZ Top 'Eliminator' hot rod. Pretty good for a 24-year-old kid. . . . The impact of that first 'Kustom Kulture' show was huge. It was the first time the visual style of California surf/hot-rod culture was placed in a fine-art context. Soon after, Juxtapoz magazine started, and things really exploded. . . . My new painting in 'Kustom Kulture II' is part of a series of memento mori paintings that I’ve been doing. It is a hand-painted halftone image of a chrome skull on a black field of stenciled black skulls. Most of this doesn’t come across in the photo—it really needs to be seen in person."
ROBERT WILLIAMS, PAINTER, CARTOONIST AND CO-FOUNDER OF JUXTAPOZ MAGAZINE: "[The original 'Kustom Kulture'] was a front to get into a legitimate museum venue, to slip in a whole bunch of underground artists and get them exposure in a proper setting. And Greg Escalante and Craig Stecyk were the first, really, to do this. This show was an enormous success. . . . Since then, this thing has exploded all over the United States, Europe and Japan. There’s a magazine called Juxtapoz that me and Greg started, and Stecyk was part of it. And Juxtapoz was a pathetic little art magazine, and its first sales were in the black. It immediately started selling. About six or seven years ago, Juxtapoz became one of the top-selling art magazines in the world. In the world. This little shitty magazine all of a sudden had a giant audience all over. Juxtapoz blew a big hole in the wall—it freed lots of young people. So between 1993 and 2013, there’s been such a growth in alternative art and expression."
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Escalante, 58, grew up in Los Alamitos, the second oldest of six remarkably successful siblings, including Vandals bassist Joe. He's wearing brown loafers with white crew socks and a red-white-and-blue Hang-Ten zip-up with matching straw fedora. He speaks with a slight adenoidal twinge and stands apart from the group gathered that morning at the warehouse of car collector and business owner Rick Rawlins. The crackling sizzle of welding provides the soundtrack to the day's conversations.
Whether he believes it or not, Escalante is largely responsible for leading the charge for the recognition of lowbrow—a term he actually doesn't approve of—even acting as catalyst for the first "Kustom Kulture" show after introducing artist Robert Williams to key Laguna Art Museum staffers. Escalante trades bonds by day ("Because I couldn't see how you could make money in art, but if you could make money some other way, you could buy art") and co-founded Juxtapoz magazine in 1994, which virtually defined underground contemporary art at large, ushering it into the commercial mainstream.