The Art of The Great American Road Trip

Jo Babcock, Chippewa Motel, Hwy 66, St Louis.jpg

The great cross-country road trip is a must-do experience for car culture-obsessed Americans. With the independence of a well-stocked car, friends, and a site-seeing map of the best roadside attractions, a certain feeling of excitement and optimism is attached to the notion of travel. "Great American Road Trip." It's a cultural phenomenon that unveils the American landscape, showing who we are, and where we live. In response to an ever-increasing homogenization of America, the new exhibit "Common Tread: Traversing the American Landscape" creates a dialogue about our land and history--evoking fond memories while simultaneously highlighting the various roadside attractions, monuments and curiosities that define American culture. Through creative installations, site-specific artwork, and a curious collection of road trip memorabilia, this exhibition is much more than a cursory cross-country jaunt.

Wind Damage, Jason Kowalski for Common Tread, Courtesy of Begovich Gallery and Sue Greenwood Fine Art.

Orange County curators, Marty Lorigan and Martha Lourdes Rocha tackled this exhibition with a classic theme for the show and found a slew of artists that felt a kinship to "The Road Trip". But in this retro classic American exhibition at The Begovich Gallery in Fullerton, these curators show off their skills as exhibition designers in a way that seems more like artistic creation in itself. For the exhibition, Lorigan and Rocha showcase custom digital billboards, a mock garage, built right into the gallery space, and a "living room" reflecting on various visions and memories of road trips. "Whether for reasons such as the economy, the rise of National Highway System, or loss of interest in American Culture and community," Rocha says, "these [distinctiveness] of these destinations [is] few and far in between. My aim is to bring to light the importance of preserving these locations."

The curators also provide documentation and mementos of the road trip that changed their lives. For Marty, the trip was an evaluation and retracing of a trip he took with his family when he was eight years old, from Toledo, OH to his new home in Brea, CA. "The road trip was about recapturing feelings of excitement and anticipation," Rocha says of Lorigan, "all the whilst, gaining a new perspective as an adult." Through these down-to-earth and accessible pieces, they eschew the haughtiness typified by upscale art galleries. The key element of this exhibit was the experience. Superficial photographs or under-developed stories, seldom capture the real feeling of a road trip. Travelers often express the discontent of the communication breakdown inherent to the subjective nature of the world. "You had to be there," travelers tend to say. And for all intents and purposes, they're right. Often, to understand what someone else's point of view, you have to dive into their world. You have to really see it, feel it, and experience it.

For many Americans, our own landscape represents freedom, both in the literal and figurative sense. Anyone with a car, it seems, can go anywhere they want. The visible definition of our freedom lies in the perception, for better or worse, that Americans have no roadblocks. Our driver's license is a ticket to travel; it gives us identity. The notion of traveling, aimless wandering, exploring uncharted lands, and discovering new places has cemented itself to American mythos, inspired by Steinbeck, Kerouac, Bukowski and many other great wanderers, who postulated that the discovery and autonomy in the American road trip is noteworthy and essential in a person's journey.

Wednesday Morning at Five O'Clock as the Day Begins, Kevin Stewart-Magee for Common Tread. Courtesy of Artist.

A little over a year ago, Lorigan and Rocha embarked on a journey of their own. They aimed to explore the real meaning of "the Great American Road Trip" and to "curate on the go," as they say, by acquiring some pictures and traveling mementos, that would be displayed in upcoming exhibition. Then tragedy struck.

Somewhere near the outskirts of Boston, their Mustang convertible was involved in an accident that left the two of them hospitalized. Seriously injured, they were stranded across the country, and without a vehicle. Lorigan broke a few mid and upper vertebra and ribs, and Rocha broke her lumbar vertebra, some ribs and her leg. They were hospitalized for almost a week, and eventually were able to go home to heal.

The car accident is a shared experience for many Americans; it is the dark side of the roadtrip, the unspoken evil of random chance that haunts the car-bound traveller. Accidents happen on long road trips. "For me, the juxtaposition of man-made anomalies, natural phenomenon and the celebration of the open road is what makes a 'road trip' the ultimate Great American Adventure," Rocha says.

Lorigan and Rocha's car after wreck in 2011.

Acting almost as relics -- or ruins -- of the journey, pieces of the totaled car appear in the exhibit; they resemble mini-altars, lit with care to exhibit the burnt and tattered pieces of the wreckage in a thoughtful way. The custom build-outs in their design are a bit over the top, but the custom artwork by photographer, Jo Babcock, sculptor, S.A. Hawkins, and renowned muralist, Kevin Stewart-Magee evoke individual experiences on road trips and the vessels of the exquisite journey.

Babcock's photographic pieces for Common Tread include one dreamlike print and two mixed media objects, but his transformation of luggage and road trip wreckage into pinhole cameras is not only romantic and mindboggling, but strange and sweet, like a raspberry warhead right off the ice-cream truck. Babcock experiments prodigiously with pinhole cameras and other handmade "low-tech" devices regularly in his work. He creates cameras out of all kinds of objects including suitcases, MSG cans, a guitar case, a Shinola tin, a VW bus and a classic Airstream motorhome. The photographs seem to hold a kind of rustic and lonely quality, not unlike road trip for a traveler of one.

Gasoline Can, Jo Babcock for Common Tread. Courtesy of Begovich Gallery.

Kevin Stewart-Magee's murals can be seen all over California, and his site-specific gigantic painting for Common Tread is a seemingly small-scale mural in it's own right. Set up in the classic trompe l'oeil style, it serves as a mock-street-alley view, just off the side of the life-like "garage." Its picturesque view of the alleyway reflects on the neighborhood of new-traditional American family, and evokes feelings of excitement and anticipation, preparing the viewer for their own road trip. Magee's fascination with alleyways goes back quite a while, and is a bit romantic. "It is so unromantic, that it is romantic," he says. "It's not about the alley as the destination, it's where you go from there." It could be an alley in Santa Ana, Chicago or Denver, it still exists as just a moment--a very specific moment.

S.A. Hawkins is a sculptor who makes gorgeous abstract pieces with industrial materials including glass, steel, silicone, and resin. Hawkins work generally explores the abstract ideas and moments that can be personalized by the viewer. His pieces tend to hint at themes, but leave all details open-ended for the viewer to interpret personal meaning and reflection in his work, while exploring visual significance and familiarity with imagery. Hawkins' piece for Common Tread is an homage to "the wreck". Shiny and visceral, this piece focuses on the intense moment of the crash--those few seconds of absolute terror and peace all rolled into one. He honors the moment, like an idol, with gold leaf and bronze, framing those few seconds here in this experiential wall sculpture.

The definitive experience of an American road trip truly cannot be replicated, but the love of this ideal American road trip is somewhat lost in our contemporary jet-setter lifestyle, and Rocha and Lorigan explore this love, this experience, this retro relationship between us and our roads.

Gallery being prepped for Common Tread | Photo: Evan Senn.

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Top image: Jo Babcock, Chippewa Motel, Hwy 66, St. Louis | Photo: Courtesy of Begovich Gallery.

About the Author

Evan is the Editor in Chief of Inland Empire Weekly, Culture Magazine, and Rogue Art Research & Writing (RARW).
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