Honk If You Love 'Art Cars'

Article excerpt

Harrod Blank likes to stop his van in front of a bus stop, click on his small public-address system, and say, "OK, everybody, say 'cheese.' "

Jaws drop. Mothers clutch small children. Grown men groan and smile. Teens say, "Cooooool."

Mr. Blank's 1972 Dodge van is covered with cameras, 1,705 of them, glued carefully in rows and designs on the van's sides, back, and front. To sidewalk crowds from California to New York, this apparition of van-dalized cameras is at first seen as the work of some wacko with too much time on his hands. Then people warm to it. Mr. Blank's enhanced van, and hundreds of other cars decorated with unlikely objects or painted with murals or swirls by their owners, are an American phenomenon: the Art Car movement. "I think the art cars are the quintessential public art of our time," says John Beardsly, an art curator and writer in Washington, D.C. "The artists meet their audience on the street. No intermediary, no dealer, no curator. It's very democratic." Something is being touched by the art- car artists that springs from the ancient idea of adornment and individual expression, but is communicated through today's icon - the automobile. "I see art cars as sort of guerrilla theater," says Rebecca Hoffberger, founder and director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. "You build one, and literally thousands more people will see your work than if it was in the best of galleries for 30 days." The Art Car movement is no flash in the oil pan. Last spring, some 250,000 people lined the streets of Houston to see the 10th annual "Roadside Attractions" Art Car parade. "We had to limit the parade to 200 cars," says Jennifer McKay, the parade coordinator, "because of the overwhelming logistics of handling the cars. But we could have many more." In Minneapolis, a smaller version, "Wheels as Art," attracted 50 cars last summer. While Blank's camera van actually takes photos of the people who stop, stare, and are amazed at the startling van, other art cars across the nation are covered with buttons, synchronized light bulbs, or Day-Glo yo-yos. They are splashed with plastic fruit, planted with real, growing grass, "tupped" with Tupperware, covered with beads, jewelry, and mirrors, or shaped like a shark. 'I'm not sure I know what it is' Blank, the son of documentary filmmaker Les Blank, also made a movie. He shot "Wild Wheels," about art cars and their owners, when he drove his first art car across America. It was a Volkswagen festooned with toys, a TV set, and other junk symbolizing American culture. "As I was driving around, the reactions of people were amazing," Blank says, "and when I took their picture, they would react to the camera and not the car. …


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