Jonathan Monk, a British-born artist who lives in Berlin, has created a shrine to fast cars and cheap gas in the Rew-Shay Hood Project Part II at Artpace in San Antonio. Monk uses the hoods of American muscle cars as his canvas, airbrushing them with images appropriated from Twentysix Gasoline Stations, Edward Ruscha’s landmark photographic homage to the open road, a work generally considered the first “artist’s book.”
Bleak and desolate, yet streamlined by the eye of a modernist, Ruscha’s images of 1960s gasoline stations are stripped-down emblems of a vanished era of full-service gas stations, when the freedom of the highway symbolized American independence, ingenuity and world dominance. But with the American auto industry struggling to survive, curator Matthew Drutt, Artpace director, says the gas-guzzling muscle cars that rolled off Detroit assembly lines “have now come to represent extravagance, wastefulness and a bygone time when driving was as much entertainment as it was practicality.”
Critic Dave Hickey has compared the blunt cowboy style of Ruscha’s black-and-white photographs to the road novels of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey, evoking a “Pop-Minimalist vision of the Road.” The images of Twentysix Gasoline Stations were shot by Ruscha in the early 1960s during a trip along Route 66 from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City and back.
Ruscha’s pioneering, conceptual artist’s book is riddled with word play, number games and metaphysical mysteries. Hickey even connected the dots between the lapsed-Catholic artist’s iconic pop painting of a Standard gasoline station and the 12 standard stations of the cross, or 13 including the crucifixion. Hence, 26 gasoline stations, 13 stops going each way, ending with a final stop at a Fina gasoline station in Groom, Texas (think of the end of a Fellini movie).
The 13 roadside shots Monk used for his work for the exhibition range from a Texaco station delicately airbrushed on the hood of a 1969 Ford Mustang to a Conoco station rendered on a 1968 Pontiac GTO Le Mans hood. Hoods from a 1967 Pontiac Firebird and a 1963 Plymouth Fury form an altar-like diptych using two Ruscha night shots. The glaring white light of advertising signs cuts into the black skies of the images.
The sleek car hoods have the kind of “professional polish” and “clear-cut machine finish” that Ruscha said defined the look he wanted in his photographs. But Monk has made sculptural and three-dimensional what Ruscha liked for its flat, two-dimensional quality. Ruscha thought of his photographs as unembellished, unadorned “facts,” while Monk’s car hoods shimmer like icons, shellacked with burnished memories and polished to a high gloss.
The airbrushed photographs have a painterly quality and the somber tone of a graphic novel. Each hood provides a background that’s the creamy white of a mass-produced appliance, and the photographs appear washed-out and sepia-toned, stripped of clouds, people and detail.
The muscle car hoods date from about a decade or more after the photographs Ruscha took, their streamlined curves contrasting with the boxy look of the ‘50s vehicles in the photographs. But the exhibit effectively shuts the hood on the era when real men tinkered on car engines, before computers made automobile motors the province of professionals rather than dirty-fingered backyard mechanics.
A café serving Cola beside an Enco station is airbrushed on the hood of a 1978 Chevrolet Malibu from the sunset of the era when muscle cars ruled the American road. The hood of a 1982 Chevrolet Camaro is a harbinger of the era of “self-serve” and the end of the cost of a gallon of gas measured in cents.
Not that the romance of the American muscle car is likely to fade away soon, but Monk’s show effectively exiles it to the realm of nostalgia. With the American automobile industry’s woes, however, the exhibit takes on the mordant, melancholy feel of a mausoleum.
Generally, Monk’s work is considered sweet and playful. Monk was a student in art school in Glasgow, Scotland, in the late 1980s, when Jeff Koons became famous for works such as Rabbit, a cheap inflatable toy rabbit Koons reproduced in polished steel. Monk responded to the work by creating a series of slowly deflating steel rabbits. The series was the centerpiece of The Deflated Inflated, Monk’s recent show at the Lisson Gallery in London, which ran parallel to his show The Inflated Deflated at Casey Kaplan in New York.
“Appropriation is something I have used or worked with in my art since starting art school in 1987,” Monk said in a statement put out by Casey Kaplan. “At this time (and still now) I realized that being original was almost impossible, so I tried using what was already available as source material for my own work. By doing this I think I also created something original and certainly something very different to what I was re-presenting. I always think that art is about ideas, and surely the idea of an original and a copy of an original are two very different things.”
Car-related exhibits are something of a fetish for Drutt, who helped organize The Art of the Motorcycle Show for the New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and who seems inspired by the converted Hudson automobile dealership that houses Artpace. Last summer, Artpace featured Oliver Lutz’s Paint It Black, all-black paintings that under infrared surveillance cameras revealed scenes from a NASCAR race in Fort Worth. Continuing the automotive themes, San Antonio artist Alex Rubio created a neon-lit homage to a neighborhood tire shop during his Artpace residency.
And as a birthday memorial in April to the art center’s founder, Linda Pace, her foundation presented Los Angeles artist Edgar Arceneaux’s video performance piece Old Man Hill at San Antonio’s landmark Mission Drive-In Theater. Like so many relics of the gas-powered automobile era, The Mission Drive-In is being demolished, making room for a new office/retail complex and a branch library. The library may, however, preserve one of the old drive-in screens as a memorial to the time when having a powerful American-made car meant freedom, not crippling dependency on a dinosaur technology.
Artpace, San Antonio
May 14 – September 6, 2009
Dan R. Goddard is a freelance arts writer living in San Antonio.