Diverse and complex commentary on the symbolism of lowriders through traditional and alternative art is the promise of In High Art of Riding Low: Ranflas, Corazón e Inspiración at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Curator Denise Sandoval, who earned her doctorate by reading lowriders as cultural markers, sought new visual approaches for this, her third such themed exhibition. She cruised the mean streets of Google to find how the Mexi-conic lowrider is being interpreted "as an art object" by a younger generation of artists.
That's how she found the life-size lowrider piñata by artist Justin Favela, 30, whose green machine, based on a 1964 Impala, was first created in 2013 for "Next Exit: Route 66," a group exhibition in Las Vegas. When the artist was selected as one of 102 artists for "State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now" at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, it was reassembled and delivered.
Do you still have it, Sandoval asked Favela.
No luck. It was scrapped for parts in 2015 for "Chop Shop," a ceremonial lowrider piñata disassembly exhibition.
Marveling that there hasn't been another artist who plays off the symbolism and form of the piñata, Sandoval asked Favela if a new one could be ready for the Petersen Automotive Museum's upcoming exhibition.
UNLV art student Karla Lagunas matching side panels on "Gypsy Rose Piñata," the life-size paper sculpture of the famous low rider.
Fortunately, some larger pieces were still stored away, so Favela called on Karla Lagunas and Jessica Vanessa Alvarez, plus art history professor and LatinosWhoLunch podcast partner Emmanuel Ortega, to make an underground Las Vegas Chicano Art skeleton crew. They labored to assemble and glue tissue paper on cardboard frames. That at on blocks in a large space looking like a car waiting for repairs. Next to it, the "hoods" were mounted on a wall, giving the warehouse the feel of a custom car shop.
This time, however, a generic ride wouldn't do. In less than two weeks, in between two out-of-state art residencies, Favela and friends recreated the Mexi-conic lowrider, Gypsy Rose, the metal and motor, pink paint and red rose artifact that is as sacred to Chicano-ism as a Guadalupe mural on an East Los Angeles tienda.
"We researched to study the three versions of Gypsy Rose," said Justin of the series of lowriders named after Gypsy Rose Lee, built by the late Jesse Valadez. The third incarnation was passed on to Jesse Valadez Jr., who recently saw his father's creation chosen by the Historic Vehicle Association to be inducted into the National Historic Vehicle Register and archived by the Library of Congress.
A few times, Favela paused to step back and look at "Gypsy Rose Piñata" to talk over details so the crew would be guided on how to keep the spirit of the car intact with paper and cardboard. It is also one way Favela, who is Mexican and Guatemalan-American, speaks to his hometown where constant appropriation of culture has made casino sculptures as temporary as piñatas. The life-size piñata may not stash candy, but it is a treat of waggish Latino Art ephemeral.
"He's turned left and creating his own lane," says Sandoval.
"Gypsy Rose Piñata" was completed last week and took a direct route along Wilshire Boulevard. Hopefully it took a detour down Whittier Boulevard.
The exhibition at the Petersen opens July 1.
The completed Gypsy Rose Piñata. Photo by Justin Favela
Previously on LA Observed
Jesse Valadez, co-founder of The Imperials