Artist Ben Von Strawn has a lifelong interest in hot rods and monsters. As a child, he would go to car shows with his dad. "I would see these painted cars when I was five years old and I would just copy it," he says. Meanwhile, his dad painted monsters on Von Strawn's toy box.
Those two not-so-unrelated things turn up frequently in Von Strawn's art and, on Saturday, he and Rebecca Subotic co-curated "Monsterfink!", bringing together more than 100 like-minded artists. Held at Burbank collectibles shop Creature Features, the event paid tribute to the mid-20th century, when monster films and car culture collided — something that continues to influence art and pop culture today.
On the surface, monsters and hot rods seemingly have little to do with each other, but the two intertwine in art, stemming from a passion for car customization that took shape on the West Coast after World War II. "This is a uniquely Southern California culture," says Von Strawn. The Southland was home to a new school of artists who used the automobile as a canvas. Folks like Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Von Dutch and George Barris became legends of the scene, taking old sets of wheels and turning them into new and unusual rides. Painting the cars is part of the process, one that gave birth to icons like Rat Fink.
With his bulging, bloodshot eyes and wide-open mouth revealing sharp, gapped teeth and a long, skinny tongue, Rat Fink is a monstrous rodent, one that artists referenced frequently in their pieces on Saturday evening. After all, the exhibition was named in part for the character.
Beyond that, there are the Universal Monsters, ghouls that became film screen legends years earlier thanks to Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. During the 1960s, figures like Frankenstein's monster and Dracula returned to popularity and, yes, some of this was connected to the car culture of the era. Von Strawn cites The Munsters as the most famous example of this hybrid made-in-L.A. culture. The creepy family at 1313 Mockingbird Lane, derived from Universal's cinematic creations, didn't have an ordinary family car. They rode around in a hot rod that was made by Barris, whose operations are in nearby North Hollywood.
Burbank turned out to be the perfect spot for this show. Custom car gatherings happen frequently in the area, particularly at the local Bob's Big Boy, itself a Googie relic from the mid-20th century. That the show was held at Creature Features, a store named for monster movie TV broadcasts, makes it all the more appropriate.
Despite the long-time popularity of both hot rods and horror movies in Los Angeles, Von Strawn says it's a little out-of-the-ordinary to see an art event combining the two. The response to the curators' call for artists was immediate and immense. Artists from Los Angeles to Japan took part, each one putting their own groovy retro spin on characters like the Morlocks, from the 1960 film adaptation of The Time Machine, to cereal icon Franken Berry. Additionally, a few displays showcased the private collections of vintage hot rod art and toys. Outside, Burbank Choppers parked their custom cars for the crowd to see. With lounge-y tunes from Jimmy Psycho and surf sounds courtesy of Boss Fink, the show was a fun nod to a past that has shaped so much of Los Angeles today.
Among the participating artists was Von Franco, who was just a kid when he started decorating shirts with felt-tip markers and spray paint back in 1963. "I didn't know what an airbrush was," he says. Around that time, he met Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, who showed him the key tool for the then-burgeoning style of art. "To me," says Von Franco of the airbrush, "it was some space age needle with something that had paint in it that was painting."
Now, at age 62, Von Franco is a veteran of the scene. He was around when the movement now known as kustom kulture reached peak success. Later on, in the '80s, he was there when curators like Billy Shire started bringing the art into galleries. He has seen the popularity of this style ebb and flow over the years. "I keep thinking this thing is dying," says Von Franco, of the art movement that caught his attention as a child in Northern California. "Every time I think it's going to die, it gets bigger."
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