Visual Arts

SMoCA's "Car Culture" takes a deeper look at our obsession with the auto

Greater Phoenix is obsessed with cars. Need proof? Take a look at that big, nasty brown cloud we suck through our collective nostrils on a daily basis.

Last year, the Phoenix Art Museum caught on with "Curves of Steel," which displayed rare and historic models (see "Nice Ride," May 17, 2007). That popular show successfully walked the line between art exhibit and car show. But "Car Culture" at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Arts dives deeper into the topic. You'll see a traditional art show in which the artists consider the greater impact of cars and spit out their visual conclusions. Thankfully, the topic of the environment is avoided (sorry, Mother Earth, I've heard it already) as the artists focus on the personal, political, and societal relationships we've made with cars.

Liz Cohen's Bodywork is a multi-segment piece. One wall shows a large, hand-drawn diagram of car construction with a television screen that plays a well-edited short video of Cohen getting dirty in the garage. She is cute, young, and petite. She hammers and wrenches away at an East German Trabant that she picked up while living in Germany. At the end of the video, she climbs in the small vehicle, and the thing extends to mimic the body frame of an El Camino. This shape-shifting car sits in the gallery in its stretched-out state with the car's innards exposed. The winding springs, metal tubes, and mechanical guts glisten under the gallery lights. (To read more about Cohen's work, see "Hard Body," Megan Irwin, October 5, 2006.)

Even though I've always seen myself as a tomboy, Cohen's entire work made me feel like a girly-girl. In fact, I'm sure this piece would emasculate a lot of dudes who know only how to change their oil. And regardless of her gender, this "go-go-gadget" El Camino is an impressive mechanical feat. But, let's be honest, I'm really impressed because Cohen is a woman. Bitch-slapped with my own sexism. Shameful.

Erwin Wurm's Fat Car is another brutal assessment, but a little more playful. Wurm's small sculpture of a bloated car mocks the laziness encouraged by our driving culture. The sedan has a tan paint job, but instead of a sleek and smooth body, the thing is fleshy. The front grille, windows, and door handles are squished into the bulbous surface — as if it were a size-4 belt squeezed around a size-14 waist. Handfuls of doughy flesh billow and bulge, barely maintaining the shape of the car. The message is pretty clear: We avoid the walk. We're fatsos.

The show continues beyond mere car models and sculptures. A beautiful series by the famous 1950s photographer Robert Frank documents a nostalgic cross-country road trip. Hans Op de Beeck, a Belgian artist, creates a poignant video installation about immigrant smuggling. The video plays in a small, darkened theater and shows a group of people crammed in the belly of a semi trailer. By the end, I felt their suffocation. On a lighter note, Robert Bechtle paints a snapshot of his family standing with their beloved 1975 guacamole-green Agua Caliente Nova.

"Car Culture" runs the gamut and opens an intelligent dialogue about our affection for, reliance on, and distaste of cars. So grab your keys and gas up. Parking's in the rear.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi