They come at you like a hallucination, through a break in the camouflage of oncoming traffic. Yes, that did look like a van piggybacking some sort of parasitic insect the size of a Volkswagen. Every community, just about, has its own: could be a Ford pickup covered in artificial leaves and spiders, or a Jaguar plastered with Day-Glo flower stickers, or a '64 Mercury bristling with toys and bones. They're called “art cars,” and they and their creators are a minor but growing cultural – or anticultural – force. Los Angeles Cultural Affairs, Folk and Traditional Arts has corralled over a dozen of these inspired renegades for a one-day (Saturday) public showing of four-wheeled oddities in the parking lot behind the Los Angeles Theater Center. Some 40 highly customized vehicles, including several custom rodders and low riders, will make up the “Wheels” exhibition, which is part of “Living Roots,” a three-day conference on folk and traditional arts now in its third year.

Like their hot-rodder and low-rider cousins, art cars “are licensed, insured automobiles that artists use as a canvas. Their context is the shopping center, the highway, the street,” says longtime car artist Philo Northrup, who'll be showing his GMC pickup adorned with steel flames and Spanish tiles. But whereas hot rodders and low riders have been more or less embraced by the culture, their aesthetics and skills passed on in the manner of traditional folk art, the men and women who create art cars often do so within a vacuum.

But that's changing, says Northrup, who coordinates San Francisco's West Fest, one of six regional gatherings of art cars around which a significant community is consolidating. (“Roadside Attractions” in Houston drew 240 participating artists last year.) Fanning this interest are dozens of art-car Web sites, and recent media coverage in the L.A. Times, The New York Times, Life, Smithsonian magazine, Germany's Stern, as well as on CNN. One of the primary forces behind this media interest has been the documentation provided by filmmaker, photographer and author Harrod Blank, who will show his films and photographs and participate in a panel discussion at “Living Roots.”

Blank, who began work on his first art car 18 years ago, now drives a 1972 Dodge van tiled with over 1,700 cameras (including a few fully functional models, used to capture candid reaction shots). His film and companion book, Wild Wheels, as well as the more recent documentary Driving the Dream, which aired on National Geographic Explorer, portray car artists as he found them on rambling cross-country treks, guided in part by rumors of other cars as “crazy” or “ugly” as his own. Even as an “art-car movement” evolves, what remains powerful in these films is often not so much the undeniable ingenuity of the artists but the poignancy of their isolation, physical and otherwise.

While car artists normally enjoy a sort of jester's immunity, Blank notes that the act of tampering with such an important status symbol as the automobile can attract very real hostility. In the 50 or so cities in which he's driven his creation, he's collected several souvenirs of resentment. True to form, Los Angeles provided a Porsche-driving yuppie who literally spat in disgust on Blank's car, while in Berkeley a posse of “feminist vigilantes” beat his car with baseball bats. He's also had a bottle thrown through his windshield and been ticketed by a cop for towing a 2-foot-long toy trailer without a license.

Paul de Valera, who'll be driving the toy- and stuffed-animal-bedecked “Ponti-wreck” to the show, has actually had his car set on fire – an act, he says, that “only makes it stronger.” De Valera finds it curious that others interpret his car as some sort of belligerent statement. The project, he insists, “says nothing. It's about a car with a bunch of toys on it. I had toys, they were cheap in large quantities, so I thought, 'Why not?'”

Every aspect of the car artist's battle against the status quo – and for respect – can be found in the road-warrior-style machine driven by Chuck Hunt. Reconfigured by blowtorch and buried under a reckless array of animal bones and junkyard scraps, this '64 Mercury is nicknamed “The Grape” because of a long-obscured coat of purple paint. “The Grape,” Hunt says, “can sit at a green light for three fucking minutes and no one's gonna honk at it. It looks like the kind of thing that eats cats!” Yet The Grape more often produces smiles, and even donations, such as the mummified squirrel left anonymously. Whatever response the vehicle provokes, Hunt obviously finds this secondary to what the car means to him: “Every piece on The Grape is a little piece of a friend, a piece of my life, a memory.”

For all their ragged goofiness, art cars undeniably push some buttons. Maybe it's because their owners are breaking the rules of engagement, asserting a right to express themselves outside accepted channels. They aren't renting billboards, ads or airtime; they aren't negotiating a publishing deal or wheedling their way into galleries. They just hop in their car and run some errands. The car talks – they drive – it's not fair.

Worse still, they violate a sacred prime-time tenet, the belief that individuality can be factory-installed by GMC, Honda or BMW. It's not mere vandalism they commit; they're calling down the wrath of the corporate gods! Stephani Barish, who'll be showing her '84 Volvo GL ornamented with Etruscan motifs, recalls her parents' warnings that it would be “dangerous to stand out on the freeway,” warnings she put aside the day she first attacked her car with paint. “It was this fantastic moment of liberation,” she says. “I was painting with abandon, it was so great – standing there thinking, 'I can mess this up. It's mine. I don't care.'”

Like tattoos, the creation of art cars often marks times of transition, moments when action triumphs over caution. Amanda Jensen ascribes the creation of her “Jungle Truck” to a “fortuitous personal inability to achieve full adult maturity.” Its lush plastic vegetation and bug life grew organically from dashboard ornaments to – once she met some art-car people and got more daring – full exterior thicket. And like the tattoo, her art car inevitably prompts the objection “But you have to live with it!”

Living with it is, of course, precisely the point. But this heart-on-the-sleeve, caution-to-the-wind commitment is unsettling to many in a time and place where market value is insidious. It's some kind of sickness, this “trade-in” mentality, this morbid preoccupation with the liquidation of assets. And for this, the art car – at least for some – is a tonic.

“Wheels” is free to the public on Saturday, May 2, from 2:30 to 5 p.m., in the parking lot behind LATC (514 S. Spring St.) – enter on Sixth St. or Main St. For more information, call Folk Arts at (213) 485-2437.

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