Features & Columns

Art on the Move

The dressed-up and decked-out art cars roll into downtown San Jose on Friday
MOBILE MUSEUEM: Philo Northrup shows off his art car.

THIS FRIDAY, the ArtCar Fest returns to beautify the streets of downtown San Jose. Coming from as far away as Florida and Vancouver, B.C., more than 30 of these eclectic vehicles will occupy the area immediately surrounding Anno Domini. The cars will begin at Amoeba Records in Berkeley Friday morning and convoy all the way down to San Jo in time for the monthly First Fridays event.

The fest—or infest, as I call it—comprises a wide variety of projects built by a wide variety of folks. In some instances, the artist merely attaches a mishmash of objects and recycled items to the outside of a car or truck, while in other cases, the vehicle is a much more elaborate project with body modifications the owner spent years working on.

One is covered with hundreds of pocket cameras, one is a Mondrian painting and another looks like a snail. But in most cases, the vehicles are works in progress, always changing, never completely "finished" in the traditional sense.

Conceived by Harrod Blank and Philo Northrup in the mid-'90s, the infest came to San Jose for the first time in 2002. That year, several vehicles, in their unconcealed lowbrow glee, parked in front of the San Jose Museum of Art, among the Circle of Palms—just the yin-yang combo of opposites that San Jose so dearly needed. As I stood there on the steps with hundreds of others gawking at the sheer creativity of these vehicles, one person turned to a confused museum employee and asked, "Why isn't San Jose normally anywhere near this fun?"

Northrup and Blank began creating ArtCars independent of each other in the early '80s and did not actually meet until 10 years later. After collaborating on several ArtCar convoys across the country, they decided that the Golden State needed its own native festival to showcase these wanton works of wonder.

Now, Blank has published three seminal books and directed three documentary films on ArtCars. His publications are considered standard references on the medium, and he operates a museum dedicated to ArtCars in Arizona, near the Mexican border.

When it comes to ArtCars, the creative public almost unanimously digs the experience whenever one of these contraptions drives down the highway. People honk, pedestrians wave and everyone seems hip to the idea of artists transforming their own vehicles into projects that will eventually get junked.

"It hits a nerve," Northrup told me. "And it's a good thing. I see it when I'm driving. It's really important for people to let me know that they're honking and waving. They want me to know that they see me and that they like my car."

According to Northrup, when people see ArtCars driving down the highway, they feel that they've now been given permission to create one of these vehicles for themselves. Which brings up the most important point—that these cars are all street-legal, properly insured vehicles. Other scenarios exist where cars are towed around like parade floats, functioning more like specimens pinned to the board. Not so with an ArtCar. It is an extension of an artist's everyday existence.

Northrup says that after all these years, he has noticed a particular reaction to an ArtCar. People seem to enjoy the here-and-now aspect of these moving works of art, since everyone understands the vehicle won't last forever. There's an aspect of immediacy involved with respecting what these artists have done with their cars.

"Cars are universal parts of our lives," he said. "So it has a broad appeal because it involves this thing that everyone has a relationship with—their cars. But also because it's ephemeral. Artists work two or three years to make something that probably will go away. And there's something really appealing about that. It makes you want to look at it now. You think, 'Wow, they really did this, there's no payoff, it's probably going to wind up in a junkyard somewhere.' There's an, 'I better enjoy this now,' kind of thing. Somehow that seems to translate immediately."

South First Friday

Aug. 5, 7-11pm

South First Street, San Jose