Art on wheels

‘The High Art of Rid­ing Low’ show­cases the beauty of lowrider cars

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - TRAVEL - JOHN ROGERS

LOS AN­GE­LES — Lowrider cars th­ese days are far more than tricked-out au­to­mo­biles with grav­ity-chal­lenged rear sus­pen­sions and ear-rat­tling ex­haust sys­tems that seem to cry out for lo­cal cops to ticket the driv­ers.

In their finest for­mat, they have mor­phed into mu­seum-qual­ity works of art, ap­pear­ing in shows around the world from Paris’ Lou­vre to Wash­ing­ton’s Smith­so­nian.

But while mu­se­um­go­ers have learned to ap­pre­ci­ate th­ese crea­tures that sprang from the garages of Amer­i­can teenagers in the years af­ter World War II, lowrider his­to­rian Denise San­doval says the eye-pop­ping, air­brushed paint­ings, plush in­te­ri­ors and chrome-plated wheels and en­gines that have come to de­fine them have qui­etly fo­mented some­thing more — a new genre

of con­tem­po­rary art.

It’s a genre San­doval hopes to ex­pose to a wider au­di­ence through “The High Art of Rid­ing Low,” a wide-rang­ing ex­hi­bi­tion of lowrider-in­spired fine art in­clud­ing paint­ings, sculp­tures, seri­graphs, pho­to­graphs, draw­ings and, of course, au­to­mo­biles cre­ated by the world’s most ac­com­plished His­panic artists.

The show, which opened ear­lier this month and runs un­til next June, is the third lowrider ex­hi­bi­tion that San­doval, a Chi­cano Stud­ies pro­fes­sor at Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity, Northridge, has cu­rated at Los An­ge­les’ Petersen Au­to­mo­tive Mu­seum since 2000.

Like pre­vi­ous shows, it fea­tures its share of some of the finest lowrider cars cre­ated, among them Jesse Valadez’s Gypsy Rose, which was en­cased in glass for dis­play on Wash­ing­ton’s Na­tional Mall ear­lier this year when it was in­ducted into the U.S. His­toric Ve­hi­cle Reg­is­ter. The long, sleek Chevro­let is bathed in bright pink and cov­ered with in­tri­cately painted roses run­ning from front tire to tail­light.

Other cars in the L.A. ex­hibit ra­di­ate a rain­bow of col­ors, in­clud­ing some with mu­rals of beau­ti­ful women, land­scapes and skele­tons rep­re­sent­ing Dia de Muer­tos, the Latino hol­i­day hon­or­ing loved ones who have died.

But placed right along­side th­ese V-8-pow­ered trea­sures are dozens of paint­ings and other mu­seum works cre­ated by such promi­nent gallery artists as Gil­bert “Magu” Lu­jan and Frank Romero, who form half of the con­tem­po­rary art world’s Los Four, the first His­panic artists group to have a show­ing at a ma­jor in­sti­tu­tion, the Los An­ge­les County Mu­seum of Art, in 1974.

“Ba­si­cally we’re fo­cused on look­ing at the lowrider car as both artis­tic in­spi­ra­tion and art ob­ject,” says San­doval, ex­plain­ing how this show dif­fers from ear­lier ones. “We’re tak­ing artists from the mu­seum gallery world and merg­ing them with lowrider artists. So we’re bring­ing th­ese two worlds to­gether.”

It’s an ef­fort per­haps best ex­em­pli­fied by the con­trast found upon first com­ing face-to-face with the late Valadez’s stun­ningly col­or­ful, in­tri­cately de­tailed Gypsy Rose, parked just out­side the gallery hall’s en­trance, and then en­ter­ing the hall it­self to see the other works.

“That car is like the ul­ti­mate zero of lowrid­ing. You know what I mean? It all starts with Gypsy Rose,” says lowrider and artist Al­bert de Alba Sr., whose El Rey, three­time win­ner of Lowrider Car of the Year, is also on dis­play.

In­side the gallery, it all con­tin­ues with a va­ri­ety of stun­ning works in var­i­ous me­dia.

There is Lu­jan’s ac­claimed Jour­ney to Azt­lan paint­ing show­ing a lowrider cruis­ing across Cal­i­for­nia’s desert to­ward the myth­i­cal land of the Aztec peo­ple.

Nearby is an­other large acrylic-on-can­vas work, this one by Jaime “Germs” Zacarias and pay­ing trib­ute to Lu­jan as it shows the late artist’s own lowrider car as­cend­ing to­ward the heav­ens as it’s driven by a friendly dog, a char­ac­ter Lu­jan fea­tured fre­quently in his work.

The ac­tual car, a 1950 Chevy coupe that Lu­jan named Our Fam­ily Car be­cause it re­ally was, is also on dis­play. See­ing it up close al­lows a view of its con­trast­ing scenes of Aztec-style paint­ings through­out and the mul­ti­col­ored flames em­bel­lish­ing its sides. The re­sult makes the car ap­pear as a hy­brid lowrider-hot rod, some­thing San­doval says the artist was go­ing for.

The Gypsy Rose is also paid trib­ute to, by mixed-me­dia artist Justin Favela’s col­or­ful, life-size “pinata” replica con­structed from pa­per and sus­pended from the ceil­ing.

Other paint­ings, draw­ings, pho­to­graphs and seri­graphs show lowrider street scenes from around the U.S. South­west, il­lus­trat­ing what San­doval has long main­tained: that while places from Es­panola, New Mex­ico, to East Los An­ge­les have claimed to be the birth­place of lowrid­ing, it ap­pears to have sprung up spon­ta­neously across the South­west dur­ing the post­war years.

Caught up in the sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion of that lowrid­ing cul­ture was de Alba, son of a lowrider who learned his air­brush paint­ing skills from his fa­ther and ap­plied them to the 1963 Chevro­let Im­pala he named El Rey.

The sparkling, candy-ap­ple-red lowrider — with its gleam­ing chrome wheels, gold en­gine, etched chrome sil­ver man­i­fold and its stun­ning mu­rals un­der the hood and trunk lid — is one of the show’s sig­na­ture pieces.

Although El Rey has been dis­played in Ja­pan and Ger­many, the mod­est de Alba, who cus­tom­izes cars for a liv­ing, says even he was caught off-guard to learn it would ap­pear along­side works by some of the most promi­nent con­tem­po­rary artists.

“That, to me, was mind-blow­ing,” he said. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute.’ And they go, ‘It’s an art form, and you’re an artist.’ It was a very hum­bling ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The Petersen Au­to­mo­tive Mu­seum, 6060 Wil­shire Blvd., Los An­ge­les, is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Ad­mis­sion is $15, $12 for se­nior cit­i­zens and stu­dents, $7 for chil­dren. Call (323) 930-2277 or visit


Vis­i­tors ex­am­ine a 1939 Chevro­let Master Deluxe named Gang­ster Squad ’39, (left) and Jesse Valadez’s Gypsy Rose, a cus­tom­ized 1964 Chevro­let Im­pala, dur­ing “The High Art of Rid­ing Low” at the Petersen Au­to­mo­tive Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les. The ex­hi­bi­tion show­cases lowrider-in­spired fine art.


The in­te­ri­ors of cus­tom­ized ve­hi­cles like El Rey, a 1963 Chevro­let Im­pala, have been given the royal treat­ment by ac­com­plished artists such as Al­bert de Alba Sr.


In­tri­cate art­work and care­ful at­ten­tion to de­tails char­ac­ter­ize the cars on dis­play in “The High Art of Rid­ing Low” at the Petersen Au­to­mo­tive Mu­seum in Los An­ge­les. El Muer­torider, a cus­tom­ized 1968 Chevro­let Im­pala by Artemio Ro­driguez and John Jota Leanos, has a Dia de Muer­tos theme.


Lowrider-in­spired art­work like Gypsy Rose Pinata by Justin Favela is on dis­play in “The High Art of Rid­ing Low” at Los An­ge­les’ Petersen Au­to­mo­tive Mu­seum.

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