Whether you’re a gearhead or not, there’s no denying that the automobile is an integral part of American life. The culture of cars can be felt from its roots in Detroit industry to the historic development of the U.S. interstate. That’s been reflected in American art, ranging from Diego Rivera’s famous murals of the Ford River Rouge plant to Ed Ruscha’s photo catalogue of gas stations along Route 66 and beyond.
That tradition is alive and well at Susan Eley Fine Art on New York City’s Upper West Side, where the recent exhibition Vroom Vroom Beep Beep has showcased contemporary artists’ often incidental intersection with the culture of cars.
“I don’t even have a license,” says artist John Conn, whose photographs of vintage American metal in Cuba line the brick walls of the warm upstairs gallery space. “In Havana especially they play up the old ‘50s cars for the tourists, but outside of that image there’s a real function and necessity. That’s a source of pride for some of these unbelievable mechanics, who can’t afford to lose what they’ve got.”
That artists like Conn have only a passing interest in cars yet identify something meaningful in them is indicative of how deeply tied up with our culture the subject has become. For graphic artist Charles Buckley, it’s old cars that grab his attention with their more distinctive designs that really speak as snapshots in time. “New cars all look the same, and I miss the sense of optimism in the older styles,” he says. Buckley’s simple yet bright prints of old Mustangs and GTOs have clear roots in Warhol’s tradition of Pop Art, which intersected with the car world on several occasions.
Carolyn Monastra’s sleepy photo of her beater Chrysler LeBaron in The Ice House is representative of the often irrational affection many of us have with our cars. Monastra loaded up her hunk of junk with all of her stuff in boxes for a big move, which is the sort of journey that cements your love with a car that’s stuck by your side in times of transition.
My personal favorite from the show is Maria Passarotti’s When Will You Be Home? There’s a thick air of stillness in the photo that depicts a husband arriving home as his wife waits inside. The E30 BMW 3 Series he’s in, the ultimate American yuppie car of the 1980s, carries with it the connotation of a well-to-do suburban lifestyle. The stark white garage door is a kind of idyllic white-picket-fence that contrasts with the feeling of loneliness in the image that comes from the separation we feel between husband and wife. It’s a great example of how every car comes with its own associations, and how the right one can superbly add flavor in all the right ways.
Vroom Vroom Beep Beep will be on view at Susan Eley Fine Art for the rest of the week.