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Auto Art: Defiling America's Deity

By Henry W. Mcgee

WEST COAST ARTISTS have long had a blasphemous bent, and now their hands have fallen on the greatest of American deities--the automobile. With the car as their new vehicle of self-expression, several young artists have lampooned America's machismo machine--and the society which created it--in the spirit of Pop art.

"People take their cars too seriously," says Tom Sewell, one of the young auto-artists. And iconoclasts like Sewell appear to have embarked on a campaign to educate the public against doing just that. "I want people to learn," says Steven Paige, the creator of the "The Dickmobile," a car that looks like a six-foot long penis. "People should loosen up," says Sewell, who designed "The Picklecar." "I want to open up people's minds to new channels of communications." Sewell puts the argument succintly when he says. "Why shouldn't you drive a piece of art?"

Like most pieces of art, either driven or stationary, the new cars have provoked a great deal of discussion. Paige's phallic "Dickmobile" is perhaps the most controversial. Built on a 1954 Hillman Minx chassis, the head of "The Dickmobile" is 18 gauge steel stretched over a pencil wire frame, while the body of the car is molded fiberglass. The entire vehicle is painted in various shades of pink, except the purple exhaust columns that run along the sides, and the rear of the car that is painted a pubic hair black. The plush interior of the car is upholstered in tufted black naugahyde and has a rosewood dashboard and paneling.

The reaction of most drivers and pedestrians to "The Dickmobile" is one of bewildered amusement. "People don't know what to think," Paige says, "but most begin to laugh and make jokes."

One group that hasn't found "The Dickmobile" particularly funny is the Los Angeles Police Department. Although the Dickmobile is licensed by the state, the L.A. police have stopped Paige no fewer than eight times in the past year "to check it for safety." "I think the reason the police stop me," Paige says, "is because 'The Dickmobile' is a symbol more powerful than the symbol of the police car."

Once when Paige was cruising down L.A.'s prestigious Wilshire Boulevard, he was stopped by two policemen who admonished him for driving an obscene vehicle. The officers were particularly worried because of the large number of elderly residents in the area. "The police were afraid they might have heart attacks if they saw 'The Dickmobile,'" Paige said. One 70-year-old man who happened by proved them wrong. "Do you know what that is?" the old man queried as he broke into a fit of laughter. "It's the greatest thing I've ever seen."

THE ADMIRERS of "The Dickmobile" haven't all been oldsters. On Sunset Strip one evening, Paige was approached by a buxom young woman who jumped on "The Dickmobile's" hood and demanded that her picture be taken with the car.

"The Dickmobile" hasn't been well received by establishment auto customizers, however. George Barris, who designed the Oscar Mayer Weiner Wagon and the STP Lemon Car, says Paige's car is "nutty." As for his own business. Barris says, "We try to keep our stuff on the socially acceptable level."

Paige tried to enter "The Dickmobile" in last year's "Concourse D'Elegance," a fashionable Los Angeles auto show, but was refused admission by the exhibit's officials. Undaunted, he bribed several guards at the show, and placed "The Dickmobile" right next to the Rolls Royce exhibit. The car received polite stares.

"I built the car as a kind of practical joke," he explains, "but it wasn't very practical because now I don't know what to do with it."

THE JOKE cost Paige quite a bit of effort. A year and a half ago Paige--then a 22-year-old disaffected drop-out from San Fernando Valley State College--went to McKinleyville, a tiny village in Northern California, to get away from it all. "But then I just got the idea that I should build 'The Dickmobile'," Paige says. Although the car is made largely from what he terms "junk," it took him seven months to build. After finishing the car, Paige drove it to Los Angeles because, he says, "this is where 'The Dickmobile' belongs."

Paige doesn't know exactly what price to put on "The Dickmobile," although he was once offered an expensive Maserati in trade. But right now he is looking for someone who "will do something with it," although he isn't certain exactly what that "something" is.

Presently supporting himself as a handy man, Paige considers himself a "folk artist." He eventually wants to go into bio-design because, he says. "I want more freedom to control those things that are controlling me."

Another California artist who sees cars as art is Tom Sewell. Sewell's "Picklecar" looks like a cross between a giant cucumber and a stray automobile. Actually "The Picklecar" is a 1950 Studebaker that has been sprayed with polyurethane foam, and painted a loud and ugly shade of green. "The Picklecar" is bizarre to the point of being offensive, and indeed, the Los Angeles Police impounded the car after someone complained about it being parked in front of their house.

"When people see 'The Picklecar'," says Sewell, "they don't know whether to laugh, scream, or run for cover." However, some children have attacked the car and tried to break off bits of the polyurethane.

SEWELL ISN'T going to stop with "The Picklecar." He plans eventually to create an entire series of vegetable cars. His next project, though, is going to be the creation of a hot fudge sundae from a 1950 Nash. He also plans to make a big shoe using a 1950 Ford. Sewell says cars of the 1950s lend themselves to his type of work.

Sewell is 32 years old and looks like a strange cross between Abraham Lincoln and Mick Jagger. A graduate of Brazil's National School of Fine Arts, he also attended the University of Minnesota while running an art gallery in Minneapolis that displayed his neck tie designs. He visited California on a vacation once and decided to stay. Sewell's interest didn't run toward gallery art anyway, so once in California he became what he calls "an environmental artist." Now the proprietor of the Venice Flea Market, a Los Angeles head shop, Sewell says what he wants to do with his art is "to open up people's eyes." With "The Picklecar" he has done just that.

Jay Ohrberg is a California pop-artist cum car stylist who challenges Sewell and Paige on their theory that works of art should be driven. He insists that his cars are to be viewed strictly as pieces of gallery art. Like Paige, Ohrberg believes that the cars's sexual symbolism is an appropriate subject for satire, and his "Sex Machine" is an unabashed statement concerning one of the time-honored uses of the automobile. "The Sex Machine's" body is a round bed covered in a plush fur-like red velvet, and sports an overhanging canopy-mirror. The chauffeur sits in hansom coach fashion behind and above the bed so that he can keep his eyes on the road, rather than the passenger compartment--and whatever happens to be going on there.

Even funnier is Ohrberg's "Outhouse Car." A privy on wheels, "The Outhouse Car" has an honest-to-goodness back home outhouse roof. A half-moon back window and a roll of toilet paper between the seats add to the work's mock authenticity. The exterior, almost entirely knotted pine, completes Ohrberg's Pop art statement.

Donn Potts is another artist who feels that cars belong in galleries. In fact, his cars have been on display in The Whitney Museum in New York. The main work, entitled "My First Car," is not so much Pop art as it is modern art. It consists of four sculptural units: "The Basic Chassis" made of wood, "The Master Chassis" made of half-inch steel tubing, and "The Stainless Steel Body" and "The Fabric Steel Body" mounted on dummy chassis. Resembling closely the sleek racers that are present on the drag strips every Sunday, "My First Car" is an exercise in sculptural design.

"MY FIRST CAR" took Potts almost six years to complete and was constructed in large part with tools he made especially for building the units. "The Master Chassis" is the only part of the sculpture with a motor. It is powered by a small, four cylinder engine that is radio controlled. The frame and motor weigh only 460 pounds, and the entire structure is 141 inches long but only 27.5 inches high.

In order to recoup some of his expenses, Potts once attempted to enter "The Master Chassis" in a hot rod show, but his application was turned down because the sculpture didn't fit any of the show's categories.

A professor of Design at Berkeley and a follower of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Potts doesn't view his work as a statement on the cult of the automobile, but rather as a study in form. He also sees it as a way of looking into himself, of developing his abilities as a builder, of heightening his consciousness.

Whether or not the small coterie of artists will radically alter America's concept of the automobile, they have at least made a small dent in modern American art.

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