Custom cars: a driving force in art world

December 06, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

At the Maryland Institute, it's vroom, vroom, VA-ROOOOMMM all over the place.

It's "Kustom Kulture," the world of the California car culture, of JTC hot rods, custom cars and the cartoon-inspired art they engendered. And this exhibit has everything from paintings to five real cars.

In the post-World War II era, California became the hotbed of a hot-rod and customizing culture that swept the imagination of much of the younger generation. Hot rodding was more involved with souping up car engines; customizing was more about altering and decorating the car's body.

The gods of this culture were three, and this show, which originated at the Laguna Art Museum, is about them: Von Dutch, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and Robert Williams.

Von Dutch, genius and alcoholic who died last year at age 63, perfected elaborate designs for cars. One of his masterpieces was a gull-wing Mercedes that he covered with stylized flames from front to back.

But Von Dutch, whose real name was Kenneth Howard, was a multiple talent. He made guns and knives, both of which are in the show, played the flute and was an artist, creating among other things the famous and much copied "Flying Eyeball."

Unfortunately, there are no Von Dutch cars in the show. With Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, we're luckier. Roth, now 62, built cars from scratch out of fiberglass and other materials. His 1959 "The Outlaw" is here in all its exposed-engine, blue-and-white-painted glory.

To make money when he was starting out, Roth also painted T-shirts at car shows. From this, we're told, sprang the decorated T-shirt trend. His best-known creation is "Rat Fink," the bug-eyed, sharp-toothed, fly-infested rat who's clearly a parody of Mickey Mouse.

Robert Williams, 50, is the premier artist of the three. He got his start with Roth and went on to create obsessively-detailed paintings of the car culture -- such as "A White-Knuckled Ride for Lucky St. Christopher" (1991) -- and other subjects. In "Beets and Beatniks" (1991), three characters styled by Williams as "Zen Bopsters" encounter three oversized beets -- that's right, the vegetable.

There are other artists represented here, but these are the stars and they have the bulk of the show. One of its texts mentions more mainstream artists who have been influenced by the California car culture, such as Edward Ruscha and Judy Chicago, but the show never explores that aspect of the subject in any depth.

To beef up the show's only East Coast venue, the institute's director of exhibitions, David Brown, has included four recently-customized cars from this part of the country, including a 1929 Ford roadster by John Hutchinson and a 1932 Ford coupe by Jack Kendall, both of Maryland.

He's also added, in an inspired touch, a Maryland Institute plaster cast of the Venus de Milo wearing a "Rat Fink" T-shirt. High meets low, indeed.

ART REVIEW

What: "Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Robert Williams and Others"

Where: Maryland Institute, College of Art, Mount Royal Station building, Mount Royal Avenue and Cathedral Street; Fox building, Mount Royal and Lafayette avenues

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays (to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays), noon to 5 p.m. Sundays; through Jan. 30

Call:(410) 225-2300

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