Photo by James BunoanThe county's art establishment has been hijacked by lo-art, a scene that once seemed slight and nonthreatening and merely whimsical. Who could ever take it seriously?
But by becoming ever more popular with the magical mid-30s/starting to make money/got taste hipster demographic, lo-art is threatening (once again) to consume the entire damn county—starting with the trs with-it Grand Central Art Center. There, influential lo-art boosters such as Greg Escalante have taken over, re-creating a Juxtapoz magazine in 3-D gallery space.It's a cathedral in which saints and patriarchs have been replaced by tits and hot rods, hot rods and tits. Even shows of artists like Charlie Krafft and Mark Ryden—charming and evocative—draw the same crowd, swingin' daddies and hepcats more interested in being seen than seeing.
So now what have they brought us? Mucho-macho greaser bait? Blockbuster Robt. Williams or OC homeboy Shag, who, though not a macho greaser, draws the same overflowing, hip lo-art crowd for his cosmopolitan, martini-swilling retro? No, it's neither of those guys; they paint vivid, saturated canvases that are narrative and funny and interesting to look at.
This time, OC's lo-art mafia has brought us a show of pinstripes.
They're not just any pinstripes, of course. They're the daddy of all pinstripes. They're pinstripes that were done freehand by a really good pinstriper. In fact, they were done freehand by the founder of modern pinstriping. They often incorporate flames. And they make slavish little greaser boys weep with joy and simultaneously gnash their teeth in envy.
I've no doubt the iconic Von Dutch, whose pinstripes are the focus of this exhibit, was a hell of a character. Tales of his tinkering genius (like his steam-powered TV), his eccentricity (the filthy Long Beach city bus on which he lived, his hermitic reclusion in Santa Paula), and his mad photographic memory conjure up a character who is rightly enthralling—though the last thing he wanted, reportedly, was to be an icon or a character.
But that would be life as performance art; it provides precious little to see in an exhibition. Here are the things you can see: a peg leg covered in a pastoral scene that for some reason reminds me of Freddy Mercury and Queen. A picture of Von Dutch in a T-shirt that warns "Von Dutch is a Crabby Old Man." His crash helmet—one of those Prussian-style ones, etched with the names of all the bike models he has bought: Moto Guzzi, Yamaha, Velocette, Excelsior, etc. His wife's crash helmet. More pictures of Von Dutch, with different small signs in the right lens of his spectacles. One reads, "Help." Another: "Never trust a guy who wears square glasses." A photo of him striping a Hobie in a ramshackle garage filled with cans of paint thinner. Stripes on someone's naked back. A fully customized 1959 Triumph Thunderbird in blue and sea-green flame waves. Car doors from an El Camino belonging to Stan Betz. A pinstriped bicycle. A Flying Eyeball in wan Lucite. Some knives.
Von Dutch wasn't just important to the greaser world. He was seminal, inspiring folks like Big Daddy Roth. Kustom Kulture was birthed from the loins of Von Dutch. What I want to know is why on earth we should care. A movement of people who care only about old cars—which must be period perfect—and wearing the right pedal pushers—which also must be period perfect. They're as slavishly conformist as teenage punk rockers, who must have not only the right style but also the right (gasp!) brand of combat boot. There is nothing more shaming than running the gauntlet of a bunch of 'billies in the wrong decade's hair style; just ask the fab burlesque troop the Velvet Hammer, who graciously appear now and then at Grand Central when they're not pleasing the crowds at LA's El Rey: Image Is Everything. Or rather, don't ask them. They're sensitive.
Go ahead: love your cars and your pompadours and your very pretty cheesecake babes. But give us back our galleries.
"Von Dutch: An American Original" at Cal State Fullerton's Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233. Open Tues.-Wed. & Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Through Jan. 26.
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