Art Cars: Transformations of the Mundane

Article excerpt

Recommended for Grades 9-12

Driving and owning a car is a rite of passage for American teenagers. As high school students acquire their learner's permit, take a driving course, obtain a license, and even earn or receive their first automobile, they are moving into adulthood and becoming more independent and social. The automobile is part of our visual cultural environment, giving us insight into our lives and desires and those of our students.

The automobile itself is often understood as an extension of oneself, where individuals may manipulate the interior and exterior of cars and trucks, decorating them through detailing, stickers, custom colors, and so on. Others go further and change their cars into unique works of art called art cars. Such cars break away from the banality of mass production. Art cars have been called "one of the hottest art forms of the millennium" by art car artist and documentarian Harrod Blank (2007, p. 129), who notes the increasingly rapid pace by which the art car has become integrated into popular culture. In Houston, the art car capital of the world, it is not unusual to be out and about and hear someone excitedly point out, "There goes an art car!"


This instructional resource will examine the nature of art cars, how they challenge definitions of art and the automobile, and how they are part of our visual cultural environment. The artists featured include W.T. Bürge, David Best, Larry Fuente, Allen Bartell, and Ann Harithas, who incorporate play, high and low cultural symbols, and transgressive attitudes as they create their art. Through discussion and artmaking activities, high school students will:

* explore and deconstruct meanings tied to the automobile to gain insight into American culture;

* develop an understanding of the function of art cars and how they play with cultural norms; and

* create a model of an art car to study how visuals are used to convey meanings and communicate with others.

What Are Art Cars?

Art cars transform the ubiquitous automobile into vehicles of self-expression. These cars are vehicles that have been altered and have evolved from a long tradition of decorated vehicles, from the gypsy caravan to the hippie van, developing alongside other custom car types such as the low riders, monster trucks, hot rods, and race cars. Yet they differ from these other traditions, because there are no set rules or guidelines for making an art car. According to Blank (2007), "people who create these other types of vehicles aim to embellish, enhance, and/or customize the inherent beauty and power of an automobile, [while] art car artists strip this away, making completely different creations" (p. 11) that convey new meanings "through design, mechanical or structural changes, renovation, and/or the addition of new images, symbols, or collage elements" (Harithas, 1997, p. 11).

Art cars may have political, social, environmental, as well as personal themes. Many are driven as the owner's primary vehicle; others are made for occasions such as Houston's annual Art Car Parade.1 Some display collections of objects, while others are rolling "punch lines" or serve to celebrate music, literary, and visual artists. Art cars may be simply painted; rebuilt from the chassis up; or modified by welding, assemblage, or other techniques that allow objects and extensions to stick to the frame of the vehicle. Key to the medium, however, is that an art car must be mobile, distinguishing it from sculpture (Blank, 2007). Beyond mobility, there are quite possibly no other set rules. It is transgressive in its informality. John Beardsley, author of Earthworks and Gardens of Revelation: Environments by Visionary Artists, has stated, "calling it art could be the kiss of death. If it got too much respect and became too formal, it might become stifled or academic. The fact that it is an underdeveloped phenomenon makes it interesting" (cited in Poole, 1997, p. …