Year of the Lowrider includes new Petersen exhibition

Gilbert 'Magu" Lujan created Our Family Car, a 1950 Chevrolet sedan, that will be part of the exhibition | Petersen museum photos by Ted7
Gilbert ‘Magu” Lujan created Our Family Car, a 1950 Chevrolet sedan, that will be part of the exhibition | Petersen museum photos by Ted7

Why do Lowriders prefer Chevys? See related story.

2017 is emerging as the Year of the Lowrider.

Consider:

• Historical museums in Colorado and New Mexico recently concluded exhibitions focused on the colorful cruisers with their sometimes hyper-hydraulic suspension systems, and the museum in Santa Fe also published a significant new book on the subject.

• In April, the Historic Vehicle Association showcased — literally displayed each for a week in a glass-enclosed box — three customized/hot-rodded vehicles on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and one of those featured was the Lowrider known as Gypsy Rose.

• In May, Hollywood got in on the action with the release of Lowriders, a drama about cars and art and angst with a cast that includes Eva Longoria.

• This year marks the 40th anniversary of Lowrider magazine.

El Rey, a 1963 Chevy Impala, by Albert De Alba Sr.
El Rey, a 1963 Chevy Impala, by Albert De Alba Sr.

Now, starting July 1, the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles opens its newest exhibition — The High Art of Riding Low: Ranflas, Corazon e Inspiracion — which will feature Lowriders and an artistic and cultural perspective.

The exhibit, which translates to Lowriders, Passion and Inspiration and which runs through June 2018, will be the third one at the Petersen featuring Lowriders. The earlier shows focused on the history and culture of the vehicles.

“Here we are in 2017 with a chance to do a third exhibition, and to add a whole new experience for the viewers,” said Denise Sandoval, a professor at California State University Northridge and the guest curator for each of the Petersen’s Lowriders exhibits.

She said it is significant that the Petersen’s overall theme since its renovation is the car as art, and that the Lowrider exhibit will take place in the museum’s Armand Hammer Foundation-sponsored “fine art” gallery, which recently showcased Keith Haring’s acclaimed Art Cars.

“With this (our third Lowrider) show, we’re taking it on another level, “ Sandoval said, “really looking at the car as an art object and the conversation that is created when we bring together museum-gallery artists who are Chicano artists who have incorporated Lowriders into their artwork, the way in which the Lowrider car has been used in the art world and how it inspires artists. We’re really kicking it up.”

Working with the Petersen also has kicked up Sandoval’s career. She was a graduate student working on her Ph.D. and had written a paper on Lowrider history and Lowrider magazine when she realized there was very little formal research on the subject.

So she decided to make it the focus of her dissertation, “to fill in the gaps in research on the Mexican-American cultural and historical experience in the United States.”

Although her family was from East LA, where Whittier Boulevard was the center of Lowrider cruising, “I didn’t know any Lowriders,” she admitted.

Car-inspired art includes Santa Cruz by Luis Tapia
Car-inspired art includes Santa Cruz by Luis Tapia

Nonetheless, when she heard the car museum was looking for a guest curator for its first Lowrider exhibition, she applied “and got the gig.”

“It became my research for my dissertation. It’s been wonderful,” said the now fully tenured professor.

The show will include five Lowrider vehicles and nearly 80 other works of art featuring or inspired by such vehicles and the culture they represent. The art is by both renown and up-and-coming artists, male and female.

The Lowrider culture has many parallels to the hot-rodding community in the post-war era, when young primarily men used their souped-up and customized cars, as Sandoval put it, “to create community and to express the American dream,” a dream that includes the freedom of movement.

“When you map Los Angeles history and politics and race and ethnicity, you couldn’t go into certain neighborhoods,” she said. “But the car represents the American dream and allows movement out. The car is freedom. It allows you to escape.”

And at the same time, a hot-rod or Lowrider draws attention, “allows people to look at you.”

Sandoval noted that while primarily a part of the Chicano culture, there also are and for a long time have been African-American and white Lowrider groups, and that the Lowrider culture has spread not only across the country but, and especially since the spread of the internet, even overseas, especially in Brazil, Spain and Japan.

Lowrider as a piñata by Justin Favela
Lowrider as a piñata by Justin Favela

By the way, all four of the Lowrider vehicles in the Petersen exhibition are Chevrolets, and that is not by coincidence, Sandoval said. From the very beginning, Chevrolets have been the vehicle of choice.

Why? Well, ask a Lowrider owner, she said, and the response is: “It’s obvious. Look at the line. Look at the shape. It’s screaming to be customized.”

But, she added, it’s more than that. It’s also nostalgia, for many owners and their families harkening to the days when “Chevy dealers gave out car loans to black and brown folks when other dealers would not.” She recalled that her own family bought its first car from Felix Chevrolet, founded in LA in 1921 by Winslow Felix, whose friend, filmmaker Pat Sullivan, offered his Felix the Cat character as the dealership’s mascot.

She also noted that the oldest Lowrider car club in LA, the Dukes, originally used 1939 Chevys as their canvases “because those cars were affordable on the used-car market. You could buy one for 20 bucks.”

“Lowriders in Los Angeles reveal not only their passion for classic cars, but also speak to the importance of visualizing and communicating cultural identity and community,” Prof. Sandoval wrote in one of her essays on the subject. “Using their vehicle as canvases for creative expression within the urban landscape, these cars and their owners document the rich and vibrant social and cultural history of nuestra ciudad (our city).”

And, as the new exhibition will demonstrate, those vehicles have inspired artists as well as car owners.

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