“What if somebody brings a bat?” worries Dr. Denise Sandoval, curator of new exhibition "The High Art of Riding Low: Ranflas, Corazón e Inspiración" at the Petersen Automotive Museum. The professor of Chicanx studies at Cal State Northridge feared for the safety of Gypsy Rose Piñata by Justin Favela.
The bright and cheerful, life-sized mixed-media twin of the famous lowrider car greets visitors at the entrance to the still relatively new fine-art gallery the museum created during its massive renovation. The original, a 1964 Chevrolet Impala, adorned with countless roses, does the same in the museum lobby.
The piece sets the tone: Most of the paintings, drawings, sculptures and installations are colorful, bright and whimsical. Works by more than 50 artists (10 of them female) from California and other Southwestern states are hung close together on four white walls in the crowded-feeling gallery space.
“When you think of the United States, we have definitely nailed the whole theme about the car — it’s an adventure and a way to express yourself,” Sandoval says. After World War II, when car customization took off, “black and brown communities” embraced lowriding because “it allowed them mobility. It allowed them to drive out — a way out of your community,” she explains.
Works like One Last Ride by Levi Ponce, Old Memories and New Dreams by Wenceslao Quiroz or Fire and Desire by famous tattoo artist Mister Cartoon echo these themes of expression, community and desire.
Chicano artists have featured lowrider cars in their work since the 1960s, Sandoval says. Every artist she contacted was excited to participate, and some created new pieces specifically for this show.
One of them is Apache artist Douglas Miles. His black-and-white drawing Chevrolet Apache is one of the larger pieces in the exhibition. It features the namesake pickup truck surrounded by members of the Apache tribe.
Miles wanted to pay tribute to a culture he admired growing up in South Phoenix, Arizona. “They even had a magazine for young people devoted to lowriders. I’ve always found that fascinating and inspiring,” he says.
This is the third time the Petersen Museum has put lowriders at the center of one of its exhibits. “There was simply too much art that would have gone unexhibited and too many stories that would have gone untold for us not to do a lowrider exhibition,” says Leslie Kendall, chief curator of the museum.
Although the cars themselves aren’t supposed to be the focus, the ones inside the gallery space and those outside will certainly draw attention, especially the showstopper Our Family Car by famed Chicano artist Gilbert “Magu” Luján.
It is a homecoming for the car. It was featured in the first lowrider exhibit at the Petersen in 2000. Its new owner, Orange County real estate developer Paul Dunlap, couldn’t be prouder had he finished it himself.
Every possible (and, it seems, impossible) surface of the 1950 Chevrolet Sedan is painted, including the headliner. Dunlap paid $6,000 in 2004 at an auto pawn shop, tracked down Magu, and worked with him to restore and finish their mobile canvas. Now it’s worth several hundred thousand dollars, Dunlap estimates.
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“But of course I would never sell it,” he says. The art lover used to drive it occasionally, until Magu’s death in 2011. “What happens if someone runs into it? I could never restore it.” Now it lives in his garage, covered with a blanket.
Sandoval, who combined her two professional passions with this exhibition, Chicanx studies and lowriders, feels that museums and artists have important roles to play in society, especially in L.A. and especially now.
“Museums need to have exhibits that really reflect the diversity and the intersectionality of our L.A. communities,” she says, adding that she believes that “artists help us change our world.”
"The High Art of Riding Low: Ranflas, Corazón e Inspiración," Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd., Mid-Wilshire; runs through July 2018. petersen.org/portfolio-item/lowrider.