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SFMOMA explores and expands California’s low-rider culture in latest exhibit

Visitors to “Sitting on Chrome,” the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new exhibit opening Aug. 5, will find it impossible to separate art from artists. More importantly, why would anyone want to?

Broadly speaking, contemporary art in 2023 more often than not taps into creators’ memories, dreams, nightmares and self-authored stories. Their artistic approaches bear the imprints of a multiplicity of experiences related to identity, race, ethnicity, gender, age, cultural heritage, economic status and more. In the best practices, personal quirks and characteristics elevate individual vision and expand the scope of artists who invest in collaborative projects.

Importantly, the issues and embedded themes in contemporary works of art in all genres continue to pull deeply from the past. Yet, they are viewed and illuminated through an aperture of modern sensibilities and artistic responses to things such as rapid changes in technology, the prevalence of mass media, ever-shifting global commerce and escalating levels of societal violence, as well as threats to social justice, climate change, ongoing systemic racism, gender-identity stigmas and the range of human emotion.

True to form, artists rafa esparza, Guadalupe Rosales and Mario Ayala have, in this stylish exhibit of lowrider cars and art, brought their full weight into a collaborative display including painting, sculpture, photography, archival materials and a sound installation. The work is vivid, intensely varied and, ultimately, revealing. “Sitting on Chrome” unfolds like an immersive songbook; telling stories about a community, a culture and the people who inhabit and express themselves therein, but also existing as a mirror on society and human struggles, triumphs and truths.

Co-curated by Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art Jovanna Venegas and Assistant Curator of Painting and Sculpture Maria Castro, the exhibit, which encompasses four galleries on SFMOMA’s second floor, offers the introductory “Lowriding through the Archive,” a collection of archival objects and publications. “More Bounce” is a consideration of how lowriders not only revolutionized vehicle mechanics and styling, but transformed locations and communities, disrupted over-policing and biased surveillance, and created for many Latinx a sense of identity and home on urban American streets. “Hybrid Interiors” is a visceral, sensory investigation of lowrider infrastructure with references to family, multigenerational experiences, manual labor and iconography in the form of decorative disco balls, dice and lush upholstery.

The fourth gallery, “On a Ride,” breaks away from aesthetics with a sonic sculpture featuring a playlist of songs selected by esparza, Rosales and Ayala. To reflect their eclectic memories of cruising at night in Los Angeles, the artists chose hip-hop, rock, electronic, dance, merengue and other music genres. Visitors experience the immersive “sound machine” by entering and hanging out in a hexagonal sculpture made of car speaker boxes.

With lowrider clubs and active participation in the movement stretching back for decades in the Bay Area, the artform that became a symbol of Latinx and Chicano identity and culture is well-known. Most often, it is familiar more by happenstance—a person being a member of the Latinx community or a car enthusiast having read an article—than by intention. “Sitting on Chrome” therefore opens a vital portal into how the cars’ ornate, lush interiors and fine, hand-crafted detailing are symbolic of coming-of-age identity and herald social practices and traditions not just in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose, but nationwide.

Notably, this was and is not simply a California phenomenon; the cars, creators and surrounding Latinx culture are the means by which communities across the country were made cohesive. In the early days, lowriding indicated injustice resisted, imagination and expression made visible, and physical spaces such as streets and parking lots being re-envisioned—all due to vehicles. “Lowrider” is also the term used for the person and artist who, through etching, pinstriping, upholstering, fabrication and the use of chrome, paint, glass and fabric, instigated individual and collective dialogues about the Latinx experience. The accumulative definitions brought into SFMOMA in 2023 suggest that lowrider is a perpetual package that continues to reveal itself across time.

In an interview, Castro says, “The three artists featured in the show are longtime friends and collaborators, but this is the first time they are working together to conceive of an exhibition. From a very early stage, we envisioned this exhibition as a collaboration between the three artists that would examine their shared interests in lowrider culture, aesthetics and techniques which have been key influences to each of their distinct practices. The themes and ideas of the show emerged from close collaboration with and between the artists.”

The curators tasked the artists with creating a mural that is a centerpiece of the exhibit. Because the artists wanted to evoke their personal sensory experiences of lowriding, they chose to focus on memories each person had of cruising with family and friends. The collaborative mural draws on concepts held in common while still demonstrating their distinctly unique practices and areas of emphasis, and finds adhesion and connection to the overall theme by emulating the outside of a car.

According to Venegas, the mural that visitors will encounter as they enter the exhibit delivers a visual replication of their shared memories. Castro says the mural introduces several of the main concepts of the exhibition, and the composition is intended to evoke the geometric designs that often adorn lowrider exteriors. The imagery and perspectives provide a sense of movement suggested, in part, by the impression of watching a car drive by. “The mural incorporates a number of different techniques that reflect each artist’s practice: esparza contributed a ball-point pen drawing, which is enlarged in the mural; Ayala created an airbrushed painting directly on the wall; and Rosales features a photograph of a lowrider that she took during a recent car meet-up. The artists collaborated with Lauren D’Amato, an artist and pinstriper based here in the Bay Area, on the mural’s execution. D’Amato also created pinstriping for the interior walls of two galleries in the show,” Castro says.

As much as the artists represent a cohesive team, distinct features of the works selected for the exhibit signify their individuality.

esparza’s Corpo RanfLA: Terra Cruiser (2017) is a 25-cent mechanical children’s ride he converted into a wearable suit. The performative piece, a collaboration with Image Magazine and Commonwealth and Council, was made for Art Basel Miami. Its creation process was lengthy. As a brown queer person coming from a working-class family, esparza gravitated, while growing up in L.A., to site-specific works that often involve movement in or through public spaces. His own body—painted, jeweled, encased in cybernetic mechanical outfits—is frequently an essential element that expresses tense, tender or titillating connections to the work’s larger themes.

In the SFMOMA exhibition, Corpo RanfLA is presented as a sculpture, with a public performance held Oct. 5. esparza says the work, which is made striking by its bright Kelly-green and cerulean-blue coloring, brings the lowrider identity and space he never felt existed as a queer person into existence while remaining complex and intentionally unresolved. It is common, and rewarding, to walk away from an encounter with esparza’s work with more questions than answers, more curiosity than conclusions.

Ayala’s Gypsy Rose (2107) and Reunion (2021) tell stories that bring to mind California history and culture. Respectively, the sculpture and the acrylic-on-canvas painting in the SFMOMA exhibit incorporate the L.A.-based artist’s deft craftsmanship with tattoo-like line work and colors, graphic depictions reminiscent of commercial sign painting and stylized images of Mexican American and Latinx people and their daily lives. Suggestions of manual labor, tools and machinery are imbued with a humanity that holds both pathos and the promise of a better world, time and place.

Rosales, the third member of the group, is a multidisciplinary artist and educator widely recognized for her community-generated archival projects. Working with sculpture, photography, video, sound and drawing, her projects and collaborations result in work that is immediately intimate and personal, but also expresses collective experiences. At SFMOMA, Drafting on a Memory; a dedication to Gypsy Rose (2022) captures the eye with plush, fuchsia/pink and purple upholstery below a dangling disco ball. A bouquet of fresh flowers rests on the fabric, its presence indicating lost beauty without losing its own. A photograph, Sixth Street Bridge (2022), positions Rosales as a placeholder, a keeper of East Los Angeles Chicano street culture in the area where she grew up. In the photographs, her Boyle Heights neighborhood, L.A.’s Whittier Boulevard and locations including the Sixth Street bridge honor people and events of the past while heralding movements, such as lowriding, that endure beyond one human lifetime. The bridge, empty of all cars or people, is therefore simultaneously a look back at reality and a glimpse of future possibility. This duality of focus is most obviously apparent in the archival documents and photos made by Rosales that can be found in the “Lowriding through the Archive” gallery, but can be inferred throughout her work.

The curators say location is a vital component of lowriding culture, and while the artists’ actual experiences of cruising in Los Angeles are crucial, the work suggests Bay Area connections through themes including disproportionate policing, the spectacularly diverse creativity of Latinx culture and identify found by youth and young adults during formative years. As an example of location as a cornerstone, Venegas says, “Mario Ayala graduated from San Francisco Art Institute in 2014, and he was very influenced by the city, so we included his self-portrait that has references to the Bay Bridge and to Diego Rivera’s mural The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. There are other references to Diego Rivera in the exhibition, especially as we are currently housing [Diego’s] Pan American Unity mural at the museum.”

In the “On a Ride” gallery, the Gravitron (2023) sound sculpture’s hexagonal shape alludes to amusement park rides that simulate the absence of gravity. Castro says visitors will feel as if they are floating in a sea of songs. “While standing within the sculpture, visitors will not only hear the music but also feel the vibrations of the car speakers, evoking the experience of cruising,” he says. “By activating the senses in this way, the work creates a space that invites us to drift into memory or imagination.”

In that space, as in the entire exhibit, exists the root stem or the main intersection of lowriders’ social crosscurrents. These stylized vehicles, with their distinctive sound and design; these people, both real and made opaque by the steamy lens of memory; and these experiences, re-imagined for their vivacity and colored with the velocity of sensory and emotional connections, are—improbably—a life-affirming collision. When they “collide” in four galleries at SFMOMA, the stories told by the art and the artists can hardly be distinguished or separated one from the other. To repeat where we began, why would anyone want to?

Visitors to the museum might make note that the exhibit includes a number of special events, including First Thursdays and a Free Family Day, that offer free museum admission for all Bay Area residents on Thursdays from 1–8pm and on Sunday, Sept. 10, from 10am to 4pm. The Free Family Day at SFMOMA is held with the San Francisco Public Library and includes hands-on artmaking, story time, performances and a scavenger hunt inspired by Latinx artists whose work is currently on view at the museum. Up to four adults can get in free when accompanied by a child 18 or younger. The First Thursday on Oct. 5 has a performance of esparza activating his Corpo RanfLA: Terra Cruiser sculpture in front of Diego Rivera’s Pan American Unity mural in the Roberts Family Gallery on Floor 1. The day will also include the premiere of an original SFMOMA short documentary about the “Sitting on Chrome” artists, as well as screenings of Debra Koffler and Vero Majano’s film Why I Ride Low and Slow (2010), which highlights 1980s lowrider culture in San Francisco’s Mission District.

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