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Sculptor Greg Johnson's Mercedes desk.

Hot Wheels

In Pueblo, there are two distinct classes: westsiders and eastsiders. The westside folks, notes Jina Pierce, visual-arts curator at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center, are the ones who frequent the cultural venue. But each summer, when the center celebrates its anniversary, it's Pierce's job to find new ways to draw in the blue-collar eastside folks.

"We try deliberately to coordinate a series of exhibitions that play off themes reflecting some of the city's stronger interests," she explains. "One of those interests is cars: hotrods, lowriders." And that's the theme that inspired this summer's events, a building full of bitchin' art shows that meet head-on under the catchall title Customized & Converted: The Art of the Automobile, a prophetic intersection of high- and lowbrow art worlds. "I can't believe the stuff we got," says Pierce, who thinks it may be the most comprehensive show of its kind ever.

There is a lot to take in all at once, but it's more than worth the cruise south to see. The exhibition has something for everyone. The highlights? It all depends on your taste. The lacquered, airbrushed candy-colored tones of straight-on hotrod art by the likes of Tom Fritz and Darrell Mayabb shoot through one gallery. The comix-inspired underground works of "Rat Fink" creator Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Von Dutch, Robert Williams and Anthony Ausgang grace another with motorized mayhem. Then there's Greg Johnson's eight-foot orchid composed entirely of shiny car parts, and Don King's '57 Marlin, a trophy swordfish fashioned from the fin of a Chevy Bel Air. Another room is dedicated to lowrider culture, juxtaposing the bejeweled pedal car Lowrider Wedding, by New Mexican folk artist Nicholas Herrera, with the avant-garde, high-low videos of Californian Ruben Ortiz Torres. "People of all ages love it," Pierce says. "The older people love it because there are so many things relating to their memories. But also, there are younger people who are tattooed and pierced coming to see it. Ed Roth passed away while we were curating the exhibit, and people are actually making pilgrimages." Pierce doubts that Williams -- another big draw who got his big break as Roth's studio art director, was one of the original Zap Comix artists and is now a stablemate at SoHo's venerable Tony Shafrazi Gallery -- has ever shown in Colorado.

Williams may also be the genre's greatest philosopher, comfortably spinning legitimate artworld bullshit in a rough-hewn, unpolished drawl. "Lowbrow art is gonna distinguish itself, but it'll take time for that to develop," he says. "Forty, fifty years from now, they'll say rock-and-roll was the music of the century, but what was the art? It was cartoons. If you look at fine art now, you'll see it's infiltrated with cartoon imagery.

"There's a collision coming. It's the same thing I face in the fine-art world, with my lurid cartoon art shoved in with the minimalists and conceptualists."

But Williams also distinguishes his work from that of the straight, nuts-and-bolts perfect automotive artists. "There's a younger phylum of hotrodders or car people," he notes, "the ones who like the lurid stuff, the skulls and the nekkid ladies. Fortunately -- or unfortunately -- that seems to be the audience I appeal to." And that's just fine with him: "Me trying to be an automotive artist would be like me hanging out at the marina bar taking commissions from guys to paint their yachts. There's not a lot of romance in it.

"I come from the Rat Fink school of hotrod art," he continues, "the kind with warts and sweat and hairy monsters. Goofy stuff is the reality of our time, and Tom Fritz is just gonna have to have his paintings hang on the same wall." In Pueblo, they do, and by God, it just looks fine.


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