Can cars make a good subject for art?

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?

"Road" the art of Steen Larsen (2012). The book cover is a detail of a 2011 painting 100x200 cm. Oil on canvas.
“Road” the art of Steen Larsen (2012). The book cover is a detail of a 2011 painting 100×200 cm. Oil on canvas.

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

"Roadscape" by Julian Opie (2001).
“Roadscape” by Julian Opie (2001).

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.

2009 Paul Cummings
Paul Cummings: “Two Point Four” 1999 – 2009. Acrylic on canvas. 240 cm by 240 cm.

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.

Motor Stop by Steen Larsen. 50x120 cm. Oil on canvas. 2009.
Steen Larsen: “Motor Stop”. 50×120 cm. Oil on canvas. 2009.

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.

1965 Chevelle SS - is this art? Image from fineartamerica.com Technically accomplished, yes, but it relies on the appeal of the subject.
1965 Chevelle SS – is this art? Image from fineartamerica.com
Technically accomplished, yes, but it relies on the appeal of the subject.

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.]

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

15 thoughts on “Can cars make a good subject for art?”

  1. Hi, I replied to this post yesterday and then it disappeared?

    Interesting topic! I’m very fond of Danish artist Allan Otte’s work. His striped paintings are weirdly hyper realistic everyday distopias, often car crashes. Their matter-of-fact titles make them even more oppressive. A computer screen can’t beat the real thing, but have a look at http://www.allanotte.dk

    Sorry, don’t know how to link to images here.

  2. Allan Otte seems even more critical than Opie or Larsen. He really has an eye for the ugly side of the modern landscape. I have seen some of these details too but have not been able to make anything of them. I did a painting of a motorway overpass in the middle of the last decade and I tried a few road images but was never happy with them. I would like to have captured some of this mundane repulsiveness that Otte has. As with all my examples of art with cars, Otte is not making the positive physical attributes of the car the focus.

  3. As we here all know, the social nuances of the motor car can be very subtle, so their use in art is not easy. Of the three examples you give, only Larsen’s work seems to really show any understanding of what different cars in different states can mean. His cars show a degree of menace.

    Julian Opie I’ve never really got and Paul Cummings just seems to choose the Metro as his idea of a typical bland car that is bought by bland people to go with their bland houses – I think today a Golf or a Qashqai would do the job better. I’m afraid his painting tells me nothing at all except that I could see the young Mr Cummings growing up in the top left bedroom of one of those houses before he went off to art school and produced his patronising painting – the rotten little ingrate!

    Off the top of my head, other artists who’ve used cars are Tamara De Lempicka’s punning ‘Autoportait’, Salvador Dali’s Rainy Taxi, JG Ballard’s ‘Crashed Cars’ exhibition at the ICA in the early 70s, Gabriel Orozco’s sliced and narrowed Citroen DS, Ant Farm’s Cadillac Ranch and Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘An Audi Glimpsed At Sunrise’. OK, I made the last one up.

    In fact, I wouldn’t exclude all the people mentioned in Classic & Sportscar’s monthly showcase since, having to cast their net further and further as the years go by, they have unearthed the odd interesting piece. Not interesting enough for me to remember and give you detail here though.

  4. I have to disagree with you about the Metro in Cummings´ painting. I think he wasn´t searching to make a statement by using a particular model and at the same time it´s not a generic car. It´s what you might call a meaninglessly specific bit of information suggestive of randomness. A Golf or Focus or E-class all would have shouted too loudly.

  5. I see the painting dates from as recently as 2009, so obviously it wasn’t a contemporary statement though the painting’s title suggests that he would choose the car to make a point. But I have no idea why a Metro. Maybe it’s his idea of a nondescript generic sort of car based on some part of his own history of which I have no knowledge, or maybe he just found a photo of the right house with a Metro outside it. I still don’t share your enthusiasm for the painting.

  6. Also, I don’t like the painting for technical reasons. Although the Metros appear to alter with the perspective, it is actually crudely done. A and B pillar of the central car are in completely the wrong place. You can take liberties with perspective when it is intentional, but that looks unintentional. Without wanting to sound like a dusty old drone, draw more and write less Mr Cummings.

  7. I hadn´t noticed that. Is it perhaps a problem that the image is painting and not a photo? I once traced a photo of a car. It looked wrong even though all the lines came from natural perspective. I learned that one does not trust drawing unless they are archetypal. Another time I made a perspecively correct CAD model of a boxy car. The perspective was technically correct but it looked so wrong I need to add curvature and other tweaks to make the boxy drawing look acceptable.

  8. I admit to being a perspective pedant and do have arguments at work about what looks right and what is right. It’s certainly true that when drawing ‘true’ perspective, you sometimes end up with something that looks wrong, so you end up changing it to something that meets your visual preconceptions. But in this case, I don’t feel that he’s used that licence. It jars to me and detracts rather than adds.

  9. Richard. I’ll gladly try to bloody your nose over an important issue like the C pillar treatment of the Nissan Juke, but I refuse to fall out with you over something as trivial as Art.

  10. If the question was “Can cars make a good subject for bad art?” then I have some form here. A while ago I made a graphics study based on photography from the now sadly defunct PopularHotRodding.com, then sold limited edition prints of the results:

    https://hellochristopher.wordpress.com/2014/11/08/all-american-muscle/

    The mistake artists often make is conflating verisimilitude for value. A great photograph captures form and function, people and place. The diagrams in a Haines manual yield detail and technical accuracy. Both are in themselves acts of interpretation. But the skill of the artist lies within their ability to both interpret and transform. How does the subject make the artist (and by extension the viewer) feel? How can they evoke that feeling in their work?

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