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Art as the Vehicle of Choice


Seven stacks of tires painted with fluorescent colors. A giant lowrider piñata suspended from the ceiling. A trio of saddles embellished with flamboyant car accessories. They’re all part of the Desert Rider exhibition at Phoenix Art Museum, conceived as an exploration of “the relationships between landscape, transportation, and identity” in the American Southwest. 

The exhibition features work by a dozen Latinx and Indigenous artists working in sculpture, painting, photography, video, and more. Several take inspiration from lowrider culture, and some make work using actual car parts.

Margarita Cabrera, “Agua que no has de beber déjala correr (Water That You Should Not Drink, Let It Run)” (2006-2022), vinyl and thread with model parts (collection of the artist, courtesy Tally Dunn Gallery, Dallas, Texas)

Entering the gallery, viewers first see a sweeping diagonal cascade of small-scale Hummer-style cars suspended from the ceiling. Created by Margarita Cabrera using vinyl, thread, and model parts, the installation titled “Agua que no has de beber déjala correr” (“Water That You Should Not Drink, Let It Run”) (2006–2022) speaks to exploitative labor practices undergirding the luxury car market.  

Nearby, an installation titled “You’re Skating on Native Land” (2022) considers the ways non-Native culture producers exploit Native land for their own gain while centering the wider context of colonization and the perspective that everything is Native land. Created by Douglas Miles (San Carlos Apache-Akimel O’odham), the installation includes 30 Apache skateboards, along with hand-painted portraits of people in his San Carlos Apache Indian community.

Douglas Miles, “You’re Skating on Native Land” (2022), Apache skateboards, vinyl (photo by Airi Katsuta, courtesy the artist and Phoenix Art Museum)

For some artists, satire is the vehicle of choice. 

With his 1971 fiberglass resin and epoxy sculpture “End of the Trail (with Electric Sunset),” Luis Jiménez counters Old West narratives embodied by James Earle Fraser’s iconic bronze statue depicting a Native American hunched over his horse as if resigned to defeat. Jiménez’s heroic Indigenous figure rides confidently atop a horse with glowing red eyes and a red handprint on its flank.

Elsewhere, Justin Favela satirizes “Seven Magic Mountains” (2016), a public art installation by New York-based artist Ugo Rondinone that includes seven totems of brightly-painted boulders installed in the desert near Las Vegas. Favela created his “Seven Magic Tires” (2022) using tires donated by Discount Tire, which adds a whole other layer of meaning.

Justin Favela, “Seven Magic Tires (Phoenix)” (2022), tires, paint, glue (photo by Airi Katsuta, courtesy of the artist and Phoenix Art Museum)

The tire company was founded by Bruce Halle, a collector of Latin American art and patron of the museum who died in 2018. In 2016, Latino advocates boycotted the business after stores posted signs supporting the re-election of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, citing the sheriff’s support for controversial anti-immigrant legislation. (That tidbit didn’t make the text panel on the museum wall.)

Another work made with rubber tires and gold leaf prompts reflection on the ecological and cultural implications of extraction. It’s Betsabeé Romero’s “Columna Interminable (Endless Column)” (2015), a monumental sculpture realized by stacking 17 tires of different sizes inscribed with symbols culled from ancient cultures including the Aztecs of ancient Mexico and the Hohokam of ancient Arizona.  

Installation view of Desert Rider (2022) at Phoenix Art Museum (photo by Airi Katsuta, courtesy of Phoenix Art Museum)

Cuban-born documentary photographer and visual anthropologist Carlotta Boettcher trains her eye on cultural, social, and historical considerations. A row of prints from her Cars series (1996-1997) shows vehicles abandoned in the New Mexico landscapes where they’re melding with natural elements from barren trees to muddy waterways. Meanwhile, her matte black car hood, “13 Moons Doubled” (1992), mounted to a gallery wall suggests a story of thirteen moons shared by numerous Native cultures. 

More storytelling transpires in a trio of digital chromatic prints (2017–2021) by Cara Romero (Chemehuevi), a photographer whose lens amplifies cultural memory and lived experience from a female Native American perspective. 

Automobiles have long been signifiers of status and achievement in American culture, reinforcing the values of the dominant culture while promulgating economic inequality. But here, Latinx and Indigenous artists use automobiles to amplify their cultural identity and heritage while questioning the systems that enable their erasure. 

Carlotta Boettcher, “Cars in the New Mexico Landscape – 50s Chevy with Tree (from the Cars in the New Mexico Landscape collection)” (1996-1998), color photography, digital print on Dibond (collection of the artist, © Carlotta Boettcher)

For Laurie Steelink (Akimel-O’odham, Gila River Indian Community), it takes the form of “Pony” (2022), a mixed-media installation created with found objects tied to car culture that nevertheless conveys the sacred nature of the horse in Indigenous cultures. 

Several participating artists seek to counter the toxic masculinity of car culture. 

Jose Villalobos embellished three saddles with elements of lowrider culture such as chain link steering wheels, tuck-and-roll upholstery, and oversized fuzzy dice, creating his “QueeRiders” (2022) installation that speaks to his gay identity. 

Jose Villalobos, “QueeRiders” (2022), mixed media (photo by Airi Katsuta, courtesy the artist and Phoenix Art Museum)

Sam Fresquez set synchronized driving routines filmed via drone in a parking lot to balletic music for her “Synchronized Driving No. 1” (2022). Like the exhibited fire suit and automotive gloves she’s covered with seed beads, the video counters the machismo Fresquez associates with NASCAR culture.  

At the back of the exhibition space, viewers see Liz Cohen’s iconic “Trabantimino” (2002–2010), a hybridized vehicle she built using a modified Cold War-era car called a Trabant, GM parts, and hydraulics. It’s surrounded by numerous lithographs and color inkjet prints from Cohen’s “Stories Better Told by Others” series paying homage to women who modeled for the cover of Lowrider Magazine

The museum is also showing her “Lowrider Builder and Child” C-print (2012), a self-portrait taken with her nursing child, and a video titled “Hydro Force” (2012), featuring Cohen operating the hydraulics on her custom-built lowrider while donning a bikini and high-heel knee-length gladiator sandals during the ninth month of her first pregnancy.

Liz Cohen, “Lowrider Builder and Child” (2012), chromogenic print (collection of Phoenix Art Museum, Museum purchase with funds provided by the Zuber Award and the Opatrny Family Foundation; courtesy the artist)

Seeing Fresquez exhibit work alongside Cohen is particularly powerful because it underscores the different ways emerging and established artists in the Southwest are manifesting hybridized identities and shifting conversations around social and cultural expectations for Latinx and Indigenous peoples. 

A final pairing of exhibited works, including a small oil painting by Chicano Arts Movement pioneer Frank Romero (“Study in Red,” 1980) and a lowrider piñata built to scale by Favela and suspended from the ceiling (“Gypsy Rose Piñata,” 2022), suggests the ways new generations of artists are bringing their voices to conversations about identity, land, movement, and migration. 

Desert Rider continues at Phoenix Art Museum (1625 North Central Avenue, Phoenix, Arizona) through September 18. The exhibition was curated by Gilbert Vicario, Phoenix Art Museum curator of contemporary art.

Editor’s Note, 8/19/22, 2:51 pm EDT: An earlier version of the article misspelled “Akimel-O’odham.” It has been corrected.

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