If you glance through a copy of a classic cars magazine you will not have to look too hard to find pictures of racing scenes: Augustine “Bodger” Gilhooley behind the wheel of a Gilbern Invader, winning the 1972 Norfolk Broads Hill Climb, for example. Is that art? Can cars make for good art?
A book of the art of Steen Larsen prompted me to consider this question again. “Road” is a collection of Larsen´s paintings from the period 2004 to 2011. The front cover is an eye-catching green metallic Ford Consul L (pretty much identical to Myles Gorfe´s troublesome 2.0. Granada L). Up to this point, only two pieces of good automotive art had crossed my path: Julian Opie´s cars and an image of a Porsche 911 parked in a grimy lane by a German artist whose name eludes me.
Apart from these three, I discounted paintings involving cars. The rather literal images satirised in the intro typically are very detailed oil paintings where the important elements
are historical accuracy or faithful realism of varying degrees or both. You might ask about posters about cars. I would call that graphic design and not art: its aim is attract attention and inform people about an event. Further picture research threw up some more exceptions to my general rule about cars and art. For example, Paul Cummings does not create art about cars but some of his paintings include cars. I have selected his work “Two Point Four” as an example of good and compelling art with cars as part of the content. The painting is large, 2.4 metres square, acrylic on canvas. The car in the image appears to be a red Metro. I wonder is this a reference to Diana Spencer who had such a car. Cumming´s work explores the tension between the specific and the general and is clearly more painterly than Julian Opie´s work. It´s also narrative. While evidently Cumming´s work is painstakingly carefully constructed it is still personal. Opie´s tends towards graphic design.
Julian Opie´s car paintings are quite well known and also use the car as a motif without trying to capture the exact details. His generalised car images are just recognisable as particular models. His background images have been simplified to anonymity whereas Cummings´ images could be a particular place (they are not – they are compositions of references).
Finally, of our trio, Larsen´s painting which is one of several car-themed images, is extremely specific and as carefully painted as one of the historic racing paintings I dislike. Yet it is clearly falling within the category of fine art and not sporting art or kitsch. I am tempted to say that the reason Larsen is clearly fine art along with Opie and Cummings is that despite the difference in style, the car ´s intrinsic qualities are not the main subject of the painting. Cummings and Opie transform the car by generalisation of varying degrees of intensity. Larsen´s image is from the photorealist school. The image is as precise as any of the ones featured in the classic car magazines. What distinguishes it is not the method of painting or the subject per se but that the car seems accidental to the painting. Larsen has seen a colour field composed of greens among which is the Consul, also green. The image also suggests a mood and ideas of decay. The work contrasts the geometry of the car with the blurred randomness of the natural background. What he isn’t doing (and neither Opie and Cummings do) is trying to capture the beauty of cars. Cars in this kind of art is not the end towards which the art is directed. It is a means towards another end.
From this we can understand why a lot of paintings of cars fail as art. The best art transforms our way of seeing. The artist sees or imagines colour fields (the image) referring to a part of reality and then turns that into a new set of colour fields (the painting). It can be that the composition is of a lovely thing but it need not be. The great still life painter Morandi´s most astonishing paintings are of ashtrays, pots and vases. The resultant object, the painting, has a beauty of its own and that´s the artist´s contribution. Think also of Lucian Freud´s paintings of people who are sometimes far from conventionally attractive. Freud´s paintings are themselves things of beauty and he side-steps the problem of the classical nude. Cummings, Opie and Larsen side-step the problem that bedevils the conventional painters of dramatic cars doing exciting things. They make you look at the world in a new way and also make objects which you look at for their own sake. They happen to be cars but need not have been.
The answer to our introductory question is that cars can make for good art but only if the artist is not free-riding on the visual interest put into the car by the industrial designer. Cars can be good means to an end but if you want to appreciate their intrinsic beauty they are like people: look at the real thing or a photograph.
[Paul Cummings is a London-based artist. His work can be seen here: http://www.polygondaydream.com/181930/gallery.]