Lowriders at the Petersen

Chris Roark (Tradicionals car club), 1958 Chevrolet Impala Final Score. Roark Collection

Can cars be art? The Petersen Automotive Museum has often landed in that basically pointless conversation. The Petersen has championed sleek Art Deco coachbuilders and one-off models painted by market-validated contemporary artists. My take is that most cars are best appreciated as design, not art per se. And when big-money automakers commission big-money artists to paint their cars, the upside is for the brand, not the artist. Those wanting authentic examples of cars as art can better find it the Petersen's recently opened "Best in Low: Lowrider Icons of the Street and Show." 

Chris Roark (Tradicionals car club), 1958 Chevrolet Impala Final Score. Roark Collection
Albert De Alba Sr. (Elite car club), 1963 Chevrolet Impala El Rey. Collection of Albert De Alba

Lowriders were a Latino inversion of Anglo hot-rod culture (the foundation of Robert E. Petersen's publishing empire, incidentally). Hot-rodders valued speed and lowered the fronts of the dated American models they could afford. Lowriders lowered the backs of their cars and prized slowness, for the goal was to display the cars while cruising the boulevards. When Los Angeles banned lowriders, their makers installed hydraulic systems so that the cars could be made street-legal, or not, at the push of a button.

Sandy Avila, 1984 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme Simply Beautiful. Collection of Sandy Avila

"Taste is the enemy of art," said Duchamp ("of creativity," said Picasso). The lowrider aesthetic is a maximalist reaction to mid-century miminalism. Everything is a decorated shed (lead sled). It is often "bad taste" (the John Waters show next door, at the Academy Museum, is not an entirely irrelevant point of comparison). Lowrider taste values humor, sentimentality, nostalgia, the male gaze, and the artist's vision if not their hand. It is Pop without the need to deep-freeze emotions, and it is the very wellspring of finish fetish. (I gained a better appreciation of early Judy Chicago, even though she's not in the show. There is however a growing woman presence in lowrider culture, with notable examples on view.)

Takahiko Izawa, 1958 Chevrolet Impala. Courtesy of Presto Co. and Rohan Izawa Design

The lowrider aesthetic is additive. The Petersen presents a timeline of incremental innovations: pinstriping, airbrushing, engraving, etc. None have exactly gone out of fashion. Many new, competition-worthy cars encapsulate the whole history of lowrider decoration.

Bernardo Casian, 1950 Chevrolet Deluxe Pretty in Pink. Private collection
Joe Ray (Lifestyle car club), 1979 Lincoln Continental MK V Las Vegas. Collection of Joe Ray
Jesse Valadez (Imperials car club), 1964 Chevrolet Impala Gypsy Rose (detail of paint). Collection of Jesse Valadez
Bobby Garza (Good Times car club), 1957 Chevrolet Double Trouble. Collection of Rocky and Rambo Garza

Lowrider shows are the salons, biennales, and art fairs of the culture. Competion cars are conceived not just as cruisable statements but as installation art. They are parked on mirrors to display underside finery. Wheels and painted hoods are detached as if in an "exploded" diagram, and shown as objets in their own right. Sometimes there are airbrushed credit panels, like in a movie.

Mister Cartoon (Pegasus LA car club), 1959 Chevrolet Impala Penny Lane. Cartoon's Private Collection

To the trans-lowrider art world, Mister Cartoon is the best-known artist here. He is represented by Penny Lane, a 1959 Impala, and an independent airbrushed metal painting, Fire and Desire (2023). 

Elite Car Club, 2015 Azteca de Oro. Collection of Roberto Garcia

The show includes motorcycles and bicycles as well as cars. Rather than an afterthought, the two-wheelers often distill the ideas to their most concentrated form. Azteca de Oro, a bicycle, combines an Aztec past with a fractal future (or maybe the other way around). 

Bobby Garza (Good Times car club), 1957 Chevrolet Double Trouble. Collection of Rocky and Rambo Garza
"Best in Low" is the fourth lowrider show the Petersen Museum has done, and it's claimed to be the largest such museum show anywhere. It's to run through spring 2025.
"Zombie Joe" Chavez (Duke's car club), 1954 Chevrolet 210 Green Bean. Collection of "Zombie Joe" Chavez


These pics demonstrate masterly design creativity. To my mind, they are also outstanding examples of contemporary American decorative art.