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Little Slice of Heaven 

Car culture exhibit at Sangre de Cristo will rev your engine

"Little Deuce Coupe...," "A girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford/Slowin' down to take a look at me," "Little old lady from Pasadena...," "Spring little cobra." "As I was motorvatin' over the hill/I saw Maybelline in a Coupe de Ville."

Cars! Egypt has pyramids, Greece had the Parthenon, Cambodia has Angkor Wat, France has Chartres, Mont-St.-Michel and Versailles.

We've got cars. For almost one hundred years, America has been shaped by, obsessed by and created by the automobile. We've reshaped our landscape to conform with our car-driven fantasies. What's the interstate highway system, after all, but an enormous continental sculpture meant to embody, and be, freedom and possibility?

For a '50s kind of guy like your reviewer, who grew up when cars were cars, and not city-destroying, pollution-generating, antisocial excuses for road rage, the summer car shows currently on display at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo are a little slice of heaven. And if you're not a car fanatic, the shows are fun, quirky, visually stunning, historically important and just plain cool.

What's there? In a word, everything.

There are actually six different shows to view: Converted: Art Inspired by Car Culture; Full Service: A Closer Look at the Filling Station; Resurrected: The VW Series; Speedster Bodies: Celebrating the Hot Rod; Car Toons: The Art of Automobile Cartooning; and Low & Slow: Honoring the Art of the Low Rider. Each occupies its own space; each reveals and celebrates a different aspect of Kar Kulture.

The exhibits are about excess, about speed, about noise, about color, about brilliant, often anonymous, artists.

Consider, for example, the slingshot dragster, c. 1950, powered by a flat-head Ford V-8, bored and stroked, ported and relieved, blown and injected. What does that mean? It means that this half-century-old race car still embodies speed, danger and lust. It's risky; you want it; you want to drive it; you get sucked into its feral beauty.

Or have a look at Ruben Ortiz-Torres' video of what must be the world's most surreal low-rider, "Alien Toy." Imagine an ordinary-appearing low-rider, whose innards have been replaced by an intricate network of hydraulic arms. What seems to be a car is actually a kinetic sculpture, which literally disassembles itself into a spinning kaleidoscope of parts; the doors, the hood, the front end, the trunk. As art, it's complex, strange, layered with meaning; as a low-rider, it's beyond cool.

And speaking of cool, have a look at Denise McCluggage's photographs of cars and drivers on the European Grand Prix circuit in the 1950s. This was a time of gentleman drivers, hand-built cars and romantically named race courses. See the great Stirling Moss in the cockpit, more James Bond than Sean Connery could ever be. Or look at Mike Hawthorn in the red Ferrari, chasing a Maserati through a bucolic turn at Rouen, c. 1956.

There are a few works in the show by Robert Williams, one of the masters of the so-called L.A. "Verite Noir" school. Williams creates wonderfully detailed, disturbing, phantasmagoric images of car crashes, hot-rod races, crowd scenes, nude women ... stuff that you want to look at, want to be part of, but it's a little scary, like partying with the bikers at Sturgis. "Hot Rod Race" (1976), a race/wreck in an imagined mid-century Los Angeles, is beautiful, compelling, detailed and as disturbing as a half-remembered dream.

Jane Withers (Denver's "Hubcap Annie") loaned her collection of antique wheel covers to the show. They cover an entire wall, hundreds upon hundreds, each different. The logos of long-forgotten automobiles as extinct as the dinosaurs flash across your eyes -- Terraplane, Reo, Graham, dozens of others. Some of the hubcaps are ordinary; some are sparkling, beautiful works of art, whose makers/designers are as forgotten and anonymous as the stonecarvers who worked at Chartres.

And another group of sculptors, happily not anonymous, are the folks who make low-rider bicycles. Starting with a 1967 Schwinn frame, Pueblo resident Carlos DeHerrera created Daddy's Dream/Mommy's Nightmare, a chrome fantasy of what a bike ought to be, a Dali-like meditation on form and beauty.

Just as cars are about freedom, Kar Kulture -- something that arose in the dry lake beds of Southern California after World War II -- is about going to the limits of freedom, and beyond. Go see this exhibit, improve your cultural literacy, and have more fun in an hour than most museums ration out in 10 years.

And if, by any chance, you have a cool car yourself, or would just like to check out a bunch of cool cars, try being there for the Rock 'N' Roll Cruise Night and Public Gallery Reception, from 5 to 8 p.m. on Friday, June 15.

Wish I still had my '69 Mercury Cyclone with the 428 super cobra jet. I'd be there for sure.

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