Curatorial essay by Tod Emel.
In the middle of the last century, there developed in pockets around North America a complex subculture around customizing vehicles for increased performance and wildly enhanced aesthetics. Fueled by a heady and potentially reckless combination of post-war optimism and disposable income, these young hot-rodders staked their claims to being the fastest and the coolest. Raw elements of the surrounding material culture were transformed into tricked-out, flamed-out, snarling, smoking monsters that would have made Dr. Frankenstein proud. What began with a few mechanically inclined innovators toiling away in their garages in obscurity has become a ubiquitous part of the vernacular. When Kenny Howard (nick-named Von Dutch) started pin striping in the 50s, could he have imagined his eponymous, and posthumous product line touting his signature logo on everything from hats to shoes to cologne in stores worldwide?
The exhibition Gearheads brings together the high-octane art of Steven Laurie fas an essentially Duchampian gesture. Perhaps this does play with the notion that the artist’s selection of the object in question constitutes the conceptual leap from ‘object’ to ‘art object’ and validates its designation as such. The questions raised here became even more convoluted when, due to some last minute glitches in the garage with the bikes’ fuel and electrical systems, neither of them was actually running in time for the exhibition opening. With their utility on hold, did the bikes become sculptural objects or were they still motorcycles?
Lodoen’s installation neatly addresses these various lines of inquiry and personalizes his practice with the inclusion of two elements: a checker-plate and red thermoplastic light box formed in his own initials logo and a vinyl lettering band spanning his half of the gallery, repeating RayLo Designs. RayLo is the cheeky brand name Lodoen applies to his creations, with the intentional reference to “J.Lo” (pseudonym for American entertainer Jennifer Lopez). Here, Lodoen addresses the process whereby a human being is transformed into a celebrity, and from there into a cleverly designed and packaged brand. Condensing all of the messy variables of a living individual into an abstract, essentialized glyph necessarily leaves out all manner of telling details. What we’re left with is an empty sign, easily traded as capital. Lodoen’s self-branding makes the point that this reductive movement operates in the art world as often and with as much conviction as the entertainment or business world. Much like Laurie’s mudflap project, Lodoen’s signature thus becomes a work of art itself.
Gearheads brought many enthusiastic visitors into AKA who may not otherwise have ventured to darken the doors of an art gallery. Beyond whatever critical considerations we may bring to bear on the work of these artists, there is always our initial gut response. This is not the usual chin-stroking contemplation and exegesis in hushed, reverent tones we expect to find in an art gallery. The autonomic flush and rush of adrenaline brought on by the roar of an engine preempts our capacity to qualify our experience with language. Exceeding the limitations of our expectations and shaking us from stasis, these moments spill out into giddy cheering and nervous laughter. Reflexively, we’re left to hang on tight and go along for the ride.