"I'm pretty sure my fans will wear this award as a badge of honor," racer Dale Earnhardt Jr. said when he accepted the 2011 Most Popular NASCAR Driver Award in December. "And so they should, because the award is theirs."
This was the ninth consecutive time Earnhardt Jr., whose grandfather was a racer and whose father died driving in a 2001 race Earnhardt Jr. nearly won, has been given the honor. It's either his scarred family legacy or his rough-edged Southern accent that keeps his fans on his side. Certainly, it's not his record, since he hasn't actually had a win in 1,318 days (and counting), according to Over88ted.com, a website that exists solely to keep track of Earnhardt's chokes and losses, and is named for his team, No. 88.
Because New York-based artist Banks Violette is interested in what's overrated -- especially when there's a strangely obsessive, sometimes violent subculture attached -- he crafted two steel, 6-foot-tall number 8's for his current exhibition at Blum & Poe gallery in Culver City. The numbers are hollow with burnt and corroded edges. One room over is another 88 written on aluminum with black tape in the same slanted font Earnhardt Jr. uses on his cars and jerseys.
But while the 88s give context, they're far less compelling than the big, black, powder-coated steel structures that stretch and bend across the exhibition's three main rooms. These forms connote speedway railings and, though warped in places or broken in two, they're illogically smooth and flawlessly painted, manufactured to be structurally sound, impeccable ruins.
"I'm interested in that point where somebody believes in something too much," Violette said in 2005, when his first museum show opened at New York's Whitney. It featured just one sculpture, the salt-coated, polyurethane skeleton of a burnt church, informed by a surge of church fires in the '90s, when some heavy-metal diehards took their lyrics too seriously ("Somehow, the CDs never got turned off in their heads," he said).
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The subject of this new exhibition isn't as explicitly morbid. Still, there's something truly sinister about racing's popularity.
The day Dale Earnhardt Sr. died on the last lap of the Daytona 500, his black and white car spun before crashing into another car, then plowing into the side rail. When the race finished, Earnhardt Jr. ran straight to the scene, to find his father already dead. Five months later, he raced on the same track and won. "This is as good as it gets," Earnhardt Jr. reportedly said. Nothing could be better than returning to and then defying something deadly.
In Violette's exhibition, the bent steel stands in for this strange attraction to danger. It's genuinely beautiful -- especially in the last gallery, where three rails converge on each other. If you walk between or behind them, it feels for a minute like you're caught in a metal maze you can't immediately get out of.