Monday, June 1, 2009

The Recognition of the Hot Rod in Automotive Art

Yes, the inevitable is happening.

Once upon a time, only a few years ago, if you went to an art exhibition like the Saturday night AFAS show preceding the Pebble Beach Concours, all you saw depicted was classic cars, mostly prewar cars like Duesenbergs, Bentleys, etc.
Then depictions of muscle cars started creeping in, on cat’s feet so to speak, but this was inevitable because some of the greatest car artists of our time are former ad illustrators like Art Fitzpatrick who painted the immortal Pontiac Grand Prix and GTO illustrations. At age 20, he was already working with Howard "Dutch" Darrin, designing the 1940 Packard four-door.
Tom Fritz , of Ventura, CA, was one of the first American fine artists to "break the mold" and depict the cars he grew up with;not LeTourneau et Marchand Bugattis but good ol' hot rods he saw on the streets of San Fernando, an LA suburb. Tom's vivid childhood recollections of the motorcycle and automotive cultures prevalent in Southern California during the 60's and 70's are reflected in his work.Among his clients are Harley Davidson and his paintings hang in many corporate collections and museums including the NHRA Museum.
And then, just like out on the lawn of Pebble Beach, hot rods appeared. Oh, the painters, many of them, were familiar with hot rods, heck many either owned or lusted after the ’32 Ford “Deuce” roadster in their youth but never wanted to admit it in polite company at events like Pebble Beach where the talk was all of Hispano-Suizas, Erdmann and Rossi 540Ks, James Young Phantoms and the like.
But now the secret is out. We all be hot rodders. Because fundamentally a car is a car and if it’s mechanical we love it.
The depictions of hot rodding that have appeared in fine art so far are steeped in history—say paintings of hot rods being run at the dry lake beds where hot rodders raced them even before WWII. More modern setting depictions are rarer though recently there has been a blossoming of "cruise-ins", impromptu car shows, at places like drive-in restaurants nationwide.
And then there’s the problem of the commercial cliché—if you show a hot rod in a drive-in restaurant (like the kind where the waitresses rolled out on roller skates to take your order) then you risk painting something that commercial retro-theme restaurants are still currently exploiting.
And once you've opened Pandora's box, how far do you go, because there’s a deep dark secret about hot rods. Now neat and clean hot rods are one thing, but deep down if you research the genre, you find out there’s another vein of hot rodding called the “rat rodding.” Because back in the day hot rodders had enough money to buy Smitty mufflers or Rajo axles but didn’t have enough money to paint the car so they ran them in flat primer. There’s a whole subtext/genre of hot rodders who have no intention of ever finishing their cars to normal “finished car” standards. To them, it is an outlaw statement on four wheels to leave it unfinished.
Call it being “in your face.”
One of the first books to show this side of the car world was the artful softbound Hot Rod by Barry Gifford with David Perry taking the pictures of rough cars built by some rough looking (“wife beater” t-shirts and lots of tattoos) dudes. Perry also wrote the movie Wild at Heart. This book captures the era when driving a hot rod made you a “bad dude” --almost as bad as riding a Harley.
There was a real life example of hot rod meets fine art that I saw a couple years ago at the AFAS tent at Pebble at their party. It was when Chip Foose, a young designer who has worked for the Detroit automakers but who now is famous for his hot rod designs, droe up to their tent in a Ford roadster –the car full of aeroplane parts like exhausts from a WWII fighter!
The artists poured of the tent to see his hot rod and there was plenty of admiration expressed—indicating that, deep down in many an American-born artist famous for depicting classic cars is a hot rodder who knew the names Bill Cushenberry, Dean Jeffries and Gene Winfield long before he ever heard of Sergio Pininfarina or Giorgetto GIugiaro….

by Wallace Alfred Wyss, who is a fine artist whose work is often found in the Marketplace category of our online store.