Lotus. Maserati. Ferrari. They’re names you likely associate with cars, rather than art.
Even so, the new “Legends of Speed” exhibit at Phoenix Art Museum makes a compelling case for cars as art objects by highlighting the aesthetics and cultural context for the 22 automobiles in the show.
Cars have been part of the American landscape for 133 years, evolving to reflect advancements in technology and shifting design trends. They’ve shaped city planning, popular culture, and modern conceptions of movement, according to Gilbert Vicario, chief curator for the museum.
For Vicario, cars provide a window into modern life. “The 20th century is the age of the machine,” he says. “Cars are important in the idea of modernity.” Like fashion, they reflect the times and share elements with other art forms.
“Cars are art because they’re made by humans,” Vicario says. “They involve design, innovation, and aesthetics.” Vicario likens the offerings in “Legends of Speed” to sculptures, noting that Phoenix Art Museum isn’t the first museum to deem vehicles worthy of exhibition.
They’ve been shown at fine art museums in Boston and Houston, where the latter focused on art deco designs. Decades before, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City presented art shows exploring motorcar and racing car designs.
Phoenix Art Museum featured streamlined car designs in a 2007 exhibition called “Curves of Steel.” In 2009, the museum explored local lowrider culture and Chicano art during the “Phantom Sightings” exhibit organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
“Legends of Speed” may raise significant questions related to gender and class for some. The vast majority of racecar drivers are men, and only those with considerable means can afford to buy the brands that anchor this exhibition. But Vicario rejects the idea that exhibiting racecars is a form of elitism. He’s hoping the exhibit will fuel curiosity about other intersections of cars and art.
Vicario has a long list of artists who incorporate vehicles in their work, including land art pioneer Walter De Maria and sculptor John Chamberlain. De Maria once restored a trio of 1955 Chevy Bel Airs, then rammed a 12-foot-long steel rod through each one. Chamberlain made sculptures with crushed scrap metal from cars.
Several Phoenix artists have created work related to cars and car culture. Like Chamberlain, Joe Willie Smith creates sculptures with found objects, including car parts. Lucretia Torva often features cars in her paintings and murals. And several artists transform lowriders into painted canvases with their designs.
Liz Cohen, who joined the Arizona State University art faculty in 2017, is best known for transforming an East German Trabant into an El Camino-style lowrider as a means of exploring hybridized identities and cultures. For years, Walter Productions has created light-based art cars shown at gatherings from Bonnaroo to Burning Man
Back in 2016, the Grand Avenue Festival included an exhibition of Arizona art cars — including the Madonna Car by Jose Benavides and the Camera Van by Harrod Blank. One covered an entire van with disposable cameras. The other used license plates to create a car resembling Our Lady of Guadalupe.
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Vicario is hoping that “Legends of Speed” will draw new people to the museum, prompting them to see cars as vehicles for storytelling rather than objects isolated from the people who design or drive them.
“There’s a huge car culture in Phoenix,” he says. “We’re excited about bringing people together for more conversations about cars and art.”
"Legends of Speed" continues through March 15, 2020, at Phoenix Art Museum. Museum admission is $23. Visit phxart.org.