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HOT, HOT HOT-RODS : Laguna Art Museum Scores a Coupe, You Might Say, With Kustom Kulture

July 15, 1993|ZAN DUBIN | Zan Dubin covers the arts for The Times Orange County Edition.

Artist Robert Williams is in heaven, a heaven where blinker lights serve as twinkling stars and oil filters come with afterlife-time guarantees.

Traipsing through a musty warehouse, he gazes excitedly at the rusted remains of old cars, expertly pinpointing the make, model and date of the automobiles that once bore the mangled parts.

"That's a 1930 Model A Ford," he says, "that's a '28, that's a '29, that's a 1935 Ford, that's a Cadillac, that's a Chevy.

"I'm pretty good, huh?" he asks a reporter, grinning like a kid who's aced his first driving test.

Williams was reared around motorcycles and cars--his dad owned stock cars--and he can tell you the year (1939) the term hot-rod entered the lexicon and describe the evolution of hot-rodding as deftly as he identifies just about anything with a gas tank.

At age 11 he was driving a 1934 Ford coupe on back roads in Alabama, and he now owns a 1932 Ford roadster and a '34 Ford two-door sedan with a chop top. His wife, artist Suzanne Williams, drives a '57 T-bird.

What's all that got to do with the price of picture frames? Williams, after all, is known from coast to coast for his paintings, not his car knowledge.

"Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed 'Big Daddy' Roth, Robert Williams and Others," opening Saturday at the Laguna Art Museum, attempts to show the influence of the Southern California custom car culture of the 1940s, '50s and '60s on the art scene of the area and beyond.

"A lot of people tend to view (custom car culture) as being extraneous to what was going on in the fine art world," guest co-curator and artist Craig Stecyk said recently. Critics see it as "a bunch of greaseballs doing this horrid, tacky stuff in the '50s. But I think it has had an incredible influence on contemporary art" in terms of materials, techniques and attitudes.

Co-curator Bolton Colburn, the museum's curator of collections, asserts in the exhibit's catalogue that "the main influence on the art of Los Angeles in the past four decades has come from car culture."

What is custom car culture, known as kustom kulture in the lingo of the day, and how will its influence be illustrated through roughly 200 artworks and objects by 43 artists and car fanatics?

If you're at least thirtysomething, you may not need much explanation. You probably know that kustom kulture represents a nationwide renegade phenomenon with roots in 1920s Southern California, and that it's synonymous with super-speedy or pin-striped driving machines agleam with multiple coats of bright paint and high-gloss wax .

You may even have customized--chopped, channeled, frenched, decked--your own car to make it flashier, or souped up its engine to make it faster. The goal was to make it look and drive like yours and yours alone, not some clone from an assembly line.

You probably also remember that weird, anthropomorphic cartoon monsters enter into this mix, with Rat Fink--that pot-bellied, fly-infested rodent--serving as the ultimate nonconformist. And T-shirt graphics and bad-taste underground comics such as Zap and Mad also play a role.

Now, if you know your contemporary art, you may know that all of this influenced "finish fetish" artists as well as later "low art" practitioners such as Williams, whose work was recently seen in the major "Helter Skelter" show at L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art.

In "Kustom Kulture," you'll see classic customized cars; sensuous lacquered sculptures by "finish fetish" artists fascinated with a work's flashy shell, or finish; Williams' nightmarish paintings rife with roadsters and slobbering shark-toothed monsters; plus various Rat Fink incarnations, other cartoon and comic images, and, curators hope, the way it all links together.

You'll also learn the story behind kustom kulture, which begins with an eccentric recluse named Von Dutch, whom Williams and others refer to as "god."

Von Dutch, who died of liver disease last September at age 63, was born Kenneth Robert Howard in Los Angeles.

The son of a sign painter, he had a knack for painting too, and is credited with introducing pin-striping--which had been used for centuries on everything from Roman chariots to sewing machines--to the world of hot-rods. He turned a rather ordinary technique into a free-form aesthetic that boasted of his Baroque designs, his signature flying eyeball (winged and bloodshot), fiery flames and grotesque, Dali-esque monsters.

"Today, we have 40 or 50 years of this stuff, and people just accept it as 'oh it's just your basic hot-rod flame job' or 'this is the way custom cars look,' " said Stecyk, who knew Von Dutch and was also reared around fast and fancy cars. "But cars didn't always look like that. Von Dutch came along and did something that's never been done before.' "

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