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[whitespace] ArtCar Festival

Drive-By Culture

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YES, THAT infamous convoy of traveling free spirits who've turned their vehicles into wanton works of wonder invaded downtown San Jose last Friday. The Art Car Festival takes place in the Bay Area every year, but 2002 was the first time San Jose had anything to do with it. Biter was refreshed to see a mainstream institution such as the San Jose Museum of Art embrace and sponsor an event of this nature. As impossible as it sounds, the closest San Jose has ever been to San Francisco was last Friday.

Although a few questionable vehicles, whose owners had obviously slapped haphazard photographs and pieces of fruit on them and proclaimed them "art cars," soured the bunch somewhat, the majority of participating cars were sheer masterpieces and represented long-term ongoing projects, never finished, always in the works.

Ron Dolce's Glass Quilt, a 1969 Volkswagen Bug (with engine No. 3) plastered in stained glass and marble, is 18 years running. Harrod Blank's renowned Camera Van is covered with more than 1,000 cameras, eroding any possible conception of what the van originally looked like. Local space-rock psychobilly hipsters the Phenomenauts brought their own space-art van and performed a rousing live set. Emily Duffy showed her now-famous Mondrian Mobile, a converted Nissan Sentra sporting a visual rhythm of red, white, blue and yellow rectangles in living (driving?) tribute to the famous Dutch painter. (Biter's appreciation was primarily due to the vehicle's resemblance to the Partridge Family Bus instead of to Piet Mondrian, but don't get us started).

Charles E. Hunt showed off what used to be a 1964 Mercury Comet. His vehicle is covered in animal skulls, antlers, army-surplus material, prosthetic limbs, pipes, rust and assorted survivalist hodgepodge. Written on the rear of the car is the seemingly innocuous phrase "I squish what I eat, and I eat what I squish." A lovely "Stoner Chicks Rule" sticker adorns his driver's side window. An old lady in a fabricated beehive hairdo that could stop a Barry Bonds line drive breezed by, scowling in utter disgust at Hunt's vehicle and spouting, "Ecchh! What's pretty about that?"

"She'll die early," Hunt told Biter afterward.

Most importantly, these cars are not specimens pinned to the board, like parade floats or the likes thereof. No way. They are all--each and every single one of them--fully street-legal registered vehicles. Back in the 1980s, when Biter drove a spray-painted Pinto and got pulled over every other day by bored, enterprising police officers forever in search of bald tires, Biter never envisioned a day like last Friday, when San Jose would embrace such free-spirited self-expression as the Art Car Fest. All those cynical folks who think that nothing ever happens in San Jose should wake up and smell the tailpipes!

Maybe it's all just folk art, or maybe it's not--who's to say--but the Art Cars made their presence known in ferocious fashion. And Biter has to repeat the fact of paramount importance: that a mainstream art institution went whole hog to sponsor this event. Horns go off to the San Jose Museum of Art!

"Why isn't San Jose normally anywhere near this fun?" an onlooker asked a museum employee while Biter scrambled to write all this down.

And to top it all off, a beautifully ridiculous Art Car Fashion Show took place in the museum that evening, hosted by San Francisco's encyclopedic improv madman Hal Robins of Ask Dr. Hal fame. A prurient promenade of assorted fashion atrocities paraded down the posh marblelike steps inside the museum for 45 minutes (under the systematic surveillance of several security guards, of course).

All in all, Biter can only hope that San Jose, a city whose motto used to be "45 miles south of San Francisco," gets happy enough off the fumes of Art Car to plan more events like this in the future. The Art Car Infest--with all its Burning-Man-recycled-garbage glee among SJMA's circle of palms--was just the yin-yang pair of opposites that San Jose so dearly needs these days.


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From the October 3-9, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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