Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile

Every woman I know is crazy ’bout an automobile

Ry Cooder

For people who live in other parts of the world, one of the many baffling aspects of American life –- aside from, among other things, its racism, its prudishness about sex, and its tolerance of violence — is the fetishizing of The Automobile. Men tend to be even crazier about automobiles than women, and the names of cars often reflect aggressive masculinity: Gladiator, Roadmaster, Rampage, Cutlass, Marauder, Mustang, Cobra, Ram, Bronco… the list goes on. During my adolescence, the car of my dreams was no less than a Rocket 88. Alas, I was unable to afford one. This was probably good fortune and a guardian angel at work.

Normally, cars and trucks don’t darken my thoughts, but the Nevada County Fair, now in progress, has brought them into my awareness in the form of Monster Trucks. Here’s a photo of one flattening what’s left of an automobile in front of the grandstand at the fair.

More than one wag has suggested that it would be more accurate to call them Monster Tires. But nearly everyone agrees that a large part of their popularity is the monster racket they make. Our home lies less than a mile from the fairgrounds, so for the past two evenings, the usual sounds of the fair — country-western music, the carnival, and the happy shrieks of children riding Ferris wheels and roller coasters — have all been drowned out by the snarling engines of monster trucks. We’ll shut the windows again tonight. It’s the last night of the fair, and the featured event is the Demolition Derby. No need to guess what get demolished.

This is not a complaint; after all, the fair happens only once a year, and who would want to deny the thrill to other people of watching — and hearing — vehicles destroying other vehicles? Especially if one shared the same — albeit muted — pleasure? I don’t dislike automobiles. I own a good one, but I’m far from crazy ’bout them. So you can imagine the ambivalent feeling when, one afternoon years ago, I witnessed, in a vacant lot across the street from my studio in San Francisco, an American icon from the Ford Motor Company blazing into extinction, like the death of a dream.

Ember – Acrylic and collage on masonite – 27 x 38 inches

Painting “Ember” was an attempt to create out of destruction an image of transcendence. First, I painted a night sky full of stars and five trees in a row, and then opened the middle three as if they were a door into another dimension. Behind the Ford I painted what I saw across from my studio: a hotel and three other buildings, the furthest of which was the Bank of America on the corner of Van Ness Ave. and Market Street.

The silhouette of a sky-blue bush sprouts from the roof of the bank and clouds emerge from it to float in a Sun-lit sky. This image was created a long time ago, but I find that thoughts of Death and Rebirth are never far from my imagination. I paint them still and likely always will, even though “always,” like everything else, will in time come to an end.

One thought to “Crazy ‘Bout an Automobile”

  1. I recall this painting from years ago, and I remember my initial reaction too, which was to be frightened by the flames but liberated by the trees and sky. Your explanation, as usual, clarifies things without stripping the work of its mystery. I see now also what I didn’t see back then: that the silhouettes of the trees and the clouds have a lot in common visually with the flames: prefiguring, perhaps, the metamorphic images that would come to your work some years later.

    A friend, and artist, came for dinner a week or so ago, and he walked about the house taking particular notice of various works of yours that we are pleased to have in our home: landscapes, a portrait of Ruth in a doorway, an early version of “Body of Fate,” a nocturnal scene, (“Fiesta” in Galicia). He was struck by the diversity of the paintings and found it remarkable that they were all done by the same person. He’s right, but also not so correct, because had he seen several dozens of your paintings from different periods, he would also have seen continuity, technically as well as thematically. I appreciate that we see this painting, “Ember” from some time in the 1970s, I suppose, as well as more contemporary pieces in this series of postings, “Gods of Gravity,” “Iroquois Dreams,” for example, because we can appreciate and marvel, as our dinner friend did last week, at the diversity as well as continuity in your work.

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