Hard Body

Liz Cohen's infiltrating the lowrider world — and calling it art

Although her day at the shop began at 7 a.m., it's two and a half hours later — 9:30 a.m. — when Cohen begins actual work on the car. Using a machine called a fingerbreak, she bends the metal for her console to fit when she attaches it. The work is slow and precise, but she moves with confidence. She wants it to be clear she did this work herself — something she hopes will increase her credibility in the lowrider world.

"A lot of people are like, 'Oh, she didn't build the car, her boyfriend built the car.' I don't want any of that shit," she says.

Cohen is coy about her personal life ("it's irrelevant," she says), but boyfriend or no, there's no way anyone else could possibly take credit for her work on this project.

Grinder, Liz Cohen, 2005
courtesy of Galerie Laurent Godin
Grinder, Liz Cohen, 2005
Liz Cohen
Andy Hartmark
Liz Cohen

Later in the week, Cohen, in blue Dickies and a tee shirt with "Liz" airbrushed on the back, is still stalled by the missing drive shaft. Her first order of business for the day is to try to get it reordered. She leaves a series of messages for the man handling her drive shaft parts in Michigan. The day before, she says, she had three different conversations with him.

She calls his office line: "Hi, Sean, it's Liz Cohen. I was just calling to see about the spline shaft. Ray told me he hasn't talked to you yet. So please call him today so we can get the order in. Thanks."

She hangs up. And immediately dials his cell phone: "Hi, Sean, this is Liz Cohen . . ."

After the daily round of phone calls, she runs to check her e-mail. She's leaving for her gallery show in Paris in a few days and there are a ton of last-minute details to take care of.

"This car is like two full-time jobs," she says. "The administering of it and buying the parts, and then working on it. And then there's the job of being an artist, which is another full-time job."

Although the car is far from completion, Cohen has scored two European gallery showings. The first, the one in Stockholm, was curated by Jan Aman at Färgfabriken. Cohen's exhibition was the centerpiece of a three-month symposium on gender issues. Aman met Cohen through Creative Capital and says he immediately wanted her to come to Stockholm.

"Her work was fantastic and would provoke a discussion about gender," he says. "Liz's image of herself as the bikini model takes one point of view, but when you add the other point of view of her being the owner of the car and being the person working and welding, it becomes much more complex. It was very provocative."

Aman was so impressed with what Cohen was doing, he even hired a personal trainer to work with her while she was there. He also built her a studio inside the center where she was able to work out with the trainer and also work with Cherry on the car (though he'll tell you the conditions were less than desirable — "Them people had absolutely no understanding of what all this was. We get there and they have no clue what a tool is, let alone what we were going to do with it," he says, grumpily).

Cohen says her time in Sweden provoked some strong feelings. Cohen's bikini photos and the fact that she was learning her mechanical skills from a man particularly upset one older woman.

"One day she watched me work for six hours. She just sat in a chair and watched me. At the end of the day, she said, 'I know you don't want to be in those photographs,'" says Cohen. "I just listened to her. I think that's part of it."

Cohen finds the reaction to her bikini photo shoots interesting and likes that it raises questions that are not easy to answer.

"The thing with the bikini model is, I didn't invent it. It's already here. I didn't reinforce it, it's already been reinforced. You're on a losing battle if you think you're going to be able to eradicate bikini models," she says. "To me the most interesting thing you can do is subvert that and play with it and use it whichever way you want to use it."

While she was in Stockholm, Cohen met with French gallerist Laurent Godin, who first spotted an early version of her work at the Yerba Buena Art Center in San Francisco.

"I was impressed and curious," he says. "I visit her in Stockholm and I was not disappointed at all. I only know her through the photos in the bikini, sexy poses. I did not know who I'm gonna meet. But I discover a very strong person. I also discover someone who has a strong and more complex conceptual approach of her practice than a quick look of the photos may introduce."

Although Cohen's project is certainly unique, she's not the first artist to create art using a car. In 2004, internationally respected Austrian sculptor Erwin Wurm completed his "Fat Convertible," currently on display at Galerie Krinzinger in Vienna, Austria. For the piece, Wurm warped and bloated a red Porsche using Styrofoam and fiberglass, conceivably to make a connection between wealth, power and obesity. In the lowrider world, an Impala called "Gypsy Rose" (you might remember it from the opening credits of Chico and the Man) has reached iconic status, owing much of its celebrity status to its beautiful body work and paint job.

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