If the automobile is a horseless carriage, then the motorcycle is the horse, and over the course of the 20th century, both types of modern passenger vehicles evolved into canvasses for creativity through the rise of custom culture. Yet while the custom car phenomenon is relatively celebrated and well-known to Americans, the art of the motorcycle hasn't really had the attention it deserves, even though "Kustom Kulture," as it has come to be known, is endemic to Southern California and is used to describe both cars and motorcycles. One of the foremost authorities on custom car and motorcycle culture is legendary L.A. artist Robert Williams, who together with Ron Turner co-authored the 1993 book Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Robert Williams and Others. Given Williams' credentials, it should come as no surprise that he has has helped facilitate a new exhibit at Glendale's Forest Lawn Museum called "Vroom: The Art of the Motorcycle," currently on display through January 5, 2015.
Hotrods and custom cars began with L.A.'s Latino population around the Great Depression when men and women bought old Chevys and Model-Ts and turned them into hot rods -- meticulously painted and decorated vehicles with racing stripes as well as other custom designs. At the same time, SoCal custom car culture took shape when locals started using contemporary American cars like Cadillacs and Buicks as mobile canvases, reupholstering interiors and applying elaborate paint jobs as an outward expression of both individual creativity and identity. But the Second World War put the car customization practice on hold until the late 1940s and early 1950s, when lowriders joined hot rods and custom cars as examples of SoCal's increasing love affair with customization.
It was during the gap in the 1940s when custom motorcycles began to take off, with mechanically-savvy WWII factory workers often assembling hundreds of small parts into two-wheeled versions of the custom automobile, as car parts were relatively scarce. Just as custom enthusiasts began forming car clubs, the rise of motorcycle gangs celebrated their own mode of transport, not only in the way the bikes were put together, but also in terms of the aesthetics of the vehicles as well as the riders themselves. Eventually, both car clubs and motorcycle gangs traveled to the rest of the country, but the root of custom vehicles remains entrenched in Southern California.
Robert Williams' involvement in Forest Lawn Museum's highly successful 1998 exhibition "In Search of Tiki" inspired Joan Adan, Museum Director and co-curator of "Vroom" to present a collection of motorcycles and related works to highlight the history and artistic merit of motorcycles as a vehicle for creativity. Williams put Adan in touch with the man who would become co-curator of "Vroom," John Parker, a native of Santa Monica whose mother sewed bikinis before they were available in stores. A former motorcycle racer, Parker has since turned to restoring vintage motorcycles. He worked with Steve McQueen's stuntman Bud Ekins and Kenneth Howard aka Von Dutch before his skills and talent in welding and fabrication led to a union career in special effects with the Local 44. But as his passion remains the art of motorcycles, he and Adan were able to obtain all the works they wanted in "Vroom," and nearly all the artists in the show are from Southern California or have a deeply rooted connection to the region.
"Some of the highest skilled artisans live here in SoCal," says Parker. "All motorcycle trends start here and always have."
In addition to the 13 motorbikes on display, "Vroom" also features more than 10 painted helmets and gas tanks, as well as over 30 photographs, sculptures, and framed artworks. There are certainly standouts in terms of the bikes themselves, including an anonymous lender's pristine sunflower-colored 1910 Flying Merkel; Flathead Jedd's green 1947 Harley-Davidson UL "California Cut-Down" and a 1953 Gilera Road Racer on loan from Barry Weiss of "Storage Wars." But unless you're a die-hard motorcycle enthusiast, it's the rest of the art that's the most accessible part of the exhibition.
The show's paintings, illustrations, photographs, and sculptures share the central theme of the motorcycle and highlight their ubiquity in popular culture, but the wide range of styles in the collection provide an example of how individual artists are able to be inspired by the same subject matter while issuing unique displays that differ from one another in terms of form and representation.
Artists Troy Lee, Sara Ray, and Pete "Hot Dog" Finlan stay true to the SoCal roots of custom culture by decorating associated elements of the vehicle itself, specifically helmets and gas tanks. Lee turned his hobby of casually painting his friends' motocross helmets into a collaboration with Peter Fonda of the iconic 1969 motorcycle movie "Easy Rider," and his company Troy Lee Designs remains the go-to helmet paint destination for some of the world's fastest racers. Meanwhile, Sara Ray's love affair with hot rods, B-movies, and Southern California led the sole female of the show to customizing gas tanks. And speaking of gas tanks, Pete "Hot Dog" Finlan's incredibly detailed Harley-Davidson tank is one of co-curator Parker's favorite pieces in the show. Finlan's career began with a crash course in airbrushing that he received in high school, which has since led him to appear on "Monster Garage" before returning to his hometown of Oceanside in 2013 to open Hot Dog Kustoms, where he has a steady stream of commissions to customize cars and motorcycles.
Samples of vehicle customization in terms of separate parts and accessories are small in comparison to the show's wide scope of framed artworks. San Fernando Valley's Tom Fritz creates paintings that often use warm tones for a hazy, semi-impressionist style that pays tribute to the laid-back wanderlust of the typical post-Cold War road warrior. Not only did Fritz design U.S. Postal Service's Muscle Car stamp series, but his work is also in international collections like the Smithsonian's, providing an example of how many artists are able to still make a living in commercial design while simultaneously working on fine art. This duality also applies to Drew Struzan, who created an advertising promo piece that was printed as a calendar titled "Raiders of the Lost Art," a tongue-in-cheek nod to his career as a highly sought-after movie poster designer who has created more than 150 works. Steven Spielberg has said, "Drew Struzan's artwork makes such a promise of grand entertainment that he puts tremendous pressure on all of us directors to keep that promise with our films." Meanwhile, the 3-D nature of the motorcycle is effectively translated on a two-dimensional surface by another commercial-turned-fine artist, Pasadena-based Syd Mead, a graduate of Art Center College of Design in 1959 who was recently named to the Society of Illustrators 2014 Hall of Fame.
A pair of 1972 ink drawings by late artists Hal Robinson (1928-1984) and Dennis Ellefson (1937-1997) serve as examples of classic illustrations while other exhibition works from multidisciplinary artist William Stout, hot rod enthusiast and self-defined "art bum" Von Franco, painter and illustrator Keith Weesner, and tattoo artist Alan Fitzgerald rely on similar styles that are visibly influenced by Robert Williams. From the provocative and ghoulish black-and-white cartoon-style pieces by Stout and Von Franco to the semi-realistic pinup by Weesner and bold, psychedelic, black light inspired piece by Fitzgerald, they all represent different versions of L.A.'s unique lowbrow underground art style.
Finally, art and the motorcycle come together in the centerpiece of the exhibit, a 1953 Moto Guzzi Falcone, which has never before been on display. The vehicle is perhaps just important as the man who loaned it to the Forest Lawn Museum, North Hollywood-based Mike Parti. An inductee into the American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame, Parti is now in his 80s and is one of the foremost restorers of antique motorcycles in America. The Moto Guzzi is an example of the care and craftsmanship true motorcycle artists put into their projects, down to the detailed pinstripes and an elaborate dragon that spins along with the wheels of the cycle itself.
Given that motorcycles have been nicknamed things like "murdercycles" and "donorcycles," it seems a bit ironic that Forest Lawn Museum is hosting a show called "Vroom: The Art of the Motorcycle." Yet both the content of the exhibition and its location call attention to the fact that, by nature, motorcycle riders are tempting fate, perhaps embracing their own mortality and making the best of their two-wheeling lifestyles while they're still alive. Many of the artists are taking risks as well, either devoting their entire lives to the art of customization or turning to fine arts following highly successful careers as commercial artists in the automotive, design, and entertainment industries. In the end, though, the show brings together a series of rare motorcycles that are elegantly surrounded by artworks in a classic, clean installation that highlights the role of the motorcycle in Southern Californian art and evokes the spirit of what it truly means to be a living, breathing American.
"Motorcycle art is no longer just some kind of lowbrow mongrel that wandered in off the streets," says Robert Williams. "It is part of the American culture."
And it all began in Southern California.
Further Reading on SoCal Kustom Kulture and Motorcycle Art:
Kustom Kulture in SoCal: Twenty Years of Fun
A 20th anniversary tribute to Laguna Art Museum's 1993 "Kustom Kulture" exhibition, "Kustom Kulture II" celebrates artists who have impacted lowbrow art movements.
Hell's Union: Motorcycle Club Cuts as American Folk Art
A new exhibition at UCR ARTSblock features defunct motorcycle club vests and their colorful club patches that represent a unique form of American folk art.
Top Image: Jeff Decker,By the Horns, 2005, Bronze, 38 x 32 x 18, Courtesy of an anonymous lender, © Eddie Lee Photography.