Road to Nowhere

photo by jack gouldThe Irvine Fine Art Center's (IFAC) current exhibition, "Southern California Car Culture," is the most shocking thing I've seen all year, if you don't count Damien Hirst's butchered animals, which I guess you probably should.

But who would have thought the IFAC would post—in plain sight of impressionable schoolchildren—a bunch of fetishistic cheesecake photos? So the photos are of sleek new Lexuses and not hard-breasted Miller Lite Girls. Do you really think there's a difference? In fact, Bud Girls sprawled atop a hood—or maybe a still from that Whitesnake video with Tawny Kitaen practically fingering herself on a Jaguar—would actually have been an improvement, exploring some of the sometimes-idiotic customs and attitudes of the kind of people (i.e., men) who cream over cars.

But the IFAC's show lacks any kind of musing on what cars mean to the people who love them. It lacks people, period. Instead, the IFAC's new curator, Carl Berg, has made the center into a veritable advertisement for Lexus and Lincoln (coincidence alert: the latter's headquarters are in Irvine), filling the space with dreamy beauty shots of gleaming beige (or is it "desert dune"?) steel straight from the car companies themselves. The lack of critical distance is horrifying: So the cars were designed in Newport? That's great. Lexus might as well have a salesman right there in the gallery flashing an Erik Estrada smile and asking, "What is it gonna take to put you in this car today?"

It's car culture by way of Irvine: sanitized and brand-new. There are no shots of rockabilly guys posed next to the souped-up rods they've spent hundreds of hours tinkering with, or vatos flashing signs next to the kind of vintage cars one can see any given Saturday at any classic-car show in the county or the Inland Empire. But there is a photo from the desk of a marketer somewhere of a yuppie couple in love, holding hands and gazing longingly at a Lincoln. These are cars that would never make any man's breath stop in his bronchi or put his balls (as my brother likes to say) in an uproar. They're just piles of money welded together and equipped with driver's-side airbags.

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There are some big names attached to "Southern California Car Culture." Chris Burden—who, you may remember, once had himself shot during a performance—is here, as is California hero Ed Ruscha. But their connections to the exhibit are tenuous. Burden is represented with a poster of stigmatic hands, on which is scrawled a note about how his friend took the bus to work. Ruscha, as always, scribbles something that very well could be a car. It could also be a vampire, or a dog. I'm going to suppose, though, that it is indeed a car—of some kind.

The best works here really do capture the essence of the highways. Andrew Bush shoots crisp, closely cropped profiles of people driving at 60 miles per hour, oblivious to the fact that they're being immortalized. The shots really are wonderful: the subjects seem completely motionless until one sees the blur of landscape whizzing behind them. And Patrick Paeper's Carwashand Liquor Store—rusted-out and abandoned under skies as eggshell-white as Pacoima's—catch the deserted beginnings of our car culture. There's a wistful Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean feel at work, as people and things who have been left out of the rush of progress sit inside their hideaways, waiting for someone, anyone, to take them down the highway.

There are other issues at work, of course, but none that can piss me off as much as the ads. Really, why not just hang a banner behind Father O'Ryan, reading, "Mass has been brought to you by Chevron. (Do people really care enough to ensure your eternal salvation? People do.)"

Sorry. Other issues. Right, then.

Stuffy art-world folks will probably never forgive the Guggenheim Museum in New York City for pandering to overflow audiences and presenting a show about motorcycle culture in 1998. It's part of a severe dumbing down, critics claim, that also includes the muy popular Norman Rockwell retrospective at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. I don't buy it; art at its best shows us things about ourselves, celebrating something here, mercilessly deflating something there. Pop culture, and the mining of it in an archaeology of the five-minutes-ago, does the same. Here in Southern California, where we're constantly derided by the rest of the world for our shallowness, we're particularly good at pop culture. Unfortunately, this show has already been done by two local institutions, and been done better. The Laguna Art Museum presented "Kustom Kulture" in '93, a show that did a terrific job of examining wackos and their rods. And Tyler Stallings and the Huntington Beach Art Center (before the fall) were expert at it, introducing shows about subcultures that embrace the Dead, alien abductions and cars, as in "El Caminoville," an obsessive body of work that lined a gallery floor-to-ceiling in photos of El Caminos spotted all over the country. The HBAC also offered up a Robert Williams retrospective that had more to do with our randy, libidinal car culture than anything Irvine can fathom. I can understand why the IFAC can't show Williams; he's smutty as hell, and there are limits to what most community art centers can exhibit. But not a hot rod in sight? Sammy Hagar can't drive 55, but the Irvine Fine Art Center has managed to craft an exhibit putting along like a Sunday driver, desperately in need of speed.

"Southern California Car Culture"at the Irvine Fine Art Center, Heritage Park, 14321 Yale Ave., Irvine, (949) 724-6880. Through Feb. 13. Free.

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