Visual Arts

Nice Ride

Maybe I'm a judgmental jerk, but when I think "car show," I picture a trashy model in a hot pink thong bikini, draped over a gleaming hood and circled by ogling men who don't stand a chance in hell of taking either commodity home.

That's what I used to think, anyway. The 22 American and European cars featured in "Curves of Steel," a risk-taker of a show at Phoenix Art Museum, took my mind right out of the cheesy, fluorescent-lit gutter. Borrowed from top collections in North America, most of the one-of-a-kind or limited-edition designs are from the 1930s. In the midst of the Depression, this modern aesthetic — streamlined, aerodynamic — symbolized intellectual advancement and a brighter future. In today's context, the cars' shining sleek contours are, yes, totally sexy. But not in a hot pink thong kind of way. I gazed at a 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, picturing myself in the driver's seat, decked out in a secret agent outfit, ready to outrun any adversary.

It's the ability to inspire such goofball fantasies that elevates "Curves of Steel" from mere car show to art exhibition. It's not just about looking, it's about experiencing — as you would amazing paintings or sculptures that move you mentally and emotionally beyond what's before your eyes.

A definite thumbs-up to the museum and curator Dennita Sewell, who is also curator of fashion design, for taking a risk. The subject matter is a bold step from what I've come to expect from Phoenix Art Museum. PAM has a long tradition of bringing art to the masses (its recent Rembrandt show, for example) but the key in such cases is to draw a new crowd without alienating the museum's core audience — or its donors. It's not hard to imagine snotty art types getting puffy and pissed off about a car show in an art museum.

But it really only takes a quick visit to the show to recognize that these sweet rides are art. The proof is immediate, with the 1936 Stout Scarab displayed in the lobby. The shiny silver vehicle, an American design by William Stout, is a minivan — but a minivan that could never emasculate Dad. The clumsy roominess typically seen in vans is erased with beautifully rounded edges that create the body's sleek curvature. The piece acts as a brilliant teaser for the rest of the exhibition.

The aforementioned 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic by French designer Jean Bugatti — the ultimate secret agent car — was my favorite. The small, two-seater cab with a metallic sharkskin blue-gray paint job is absolutely stunning. Unlike in most car designs, in which sections are welded to create a smooth exterior, rivets secure each piece of metal. The designer embraces the unique construction and exaggerates the seams, which protrude like a spine along the top of the hood, domed cab and rear hatch. Matching ridges adorn the fenders to bring the whole design together. With gorgeous curves and an aerodynamic body, it maintains a smooth appeal, and the riveted seams give it a tough-looking edge.

Another French creation — very different from the Bugatti but still worthy of adoration — is the 1939 Delahaye Type 165 designed by Figoni & Falaschi Carrossiers. The cherry-red vehicle has an extra-wide body with a hidden convertible top and roll-down windshield. The door handles are recessed, and from bumper to bumper, the transitions between body parts are fluid and oceanic. The design moves seamlessly to fenders that almost completely hide the wheels, making it easy to imagine the car gliding as it moves down the highway. This baby isn't for high-speed chases but is perfect for a sunny road trip along some scenic coast (with hair wrapped in a scarf and '50s-style sunglasses, of course). The smooth body has a feminine aesthetic, and it's no surprise to learn that Delahaye worked with top fashion designers when creating couture gowns to be modeled with their cars.

The vast variations of bodies, colors, and other visual elements included prove that aestheticism is not only a consideration, but an integral element of the whole experience. Sadly, even though these objects are created to have mechanical breath and life, they are stuck in a museum — impotent and useless. What other choice is there than to appreciate them purely for the aesthetic? The intended functions — speed and aerodynamics — can not be observed in a gallery. In fact, many of the cars couldn't even make the drive to the museum and had to be transported by a larger vehicle.

Designer Ed Welburn, responsible for the 1987 Oldsmobile Aerotech, created a car that was never really meant to go anywhere. His aim was to produce a conceptual design showcasing the idea of speed. Sure, it looks fast, but it's hideous and so over the top — like a desperate attempt to achieve an image (no surprise it was designed in the '80s). The silver body is flat and wide, and tapers to an elongated tail shape with an extremely narrow point at the rear. The designer used a wind tunnel to test his vision and that's exactly what it looks like — a piece of metal that got stuck in a giant vacuum cleaner. With only one inch of ground clearance, the thing looks ridiculous. It's the type of car Glen Goolia (the Miami Vice wanna-be guy from The Wedding Singer) would think was totally bitchin'.

"Curves of Steel" may attract car show types who don't make a habit of frequenting art museums, but it still has a lot to offer any art snob. Many thanks to the car designers who led me to worlds of high-speed chases, scenic cruises and killer outfits. Honestly, what more could you ask of art?

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi