By Jeff Balke
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There is a third, slightly rarer kind of car, the car whose shape has been changed, with foam, fiberglass or other materials, to make it look like something other than a car. Tom Kennedy's popular shark cars and fin-mobiles fit the bill here, as does a New Orleans car known as The Skull.
And finally, there is the kind of car Mike Scranton makes: the macho art car. In the art car genre, the macho car is a virulent strain, but an inevitable one -- we are, after all, dealing with cars. The macho art car begins not as a whole automobile per se, but a stripped-down chassis, an engine, a yard full of scrap iron and a vision that veers from apocalyptic to survivalist to glazed over with hormonal activity. It shares a world-view with the anarchic Burning Man festival in the Black Rock desert of Nevada, or the military-caliber pyrotechnics of San Francisco's Survival Research Laboratories, whose robot performances patrons must sign a release to view.
What the macho art car lacks in subtlety, it makes up for in power. It is a grinding, noxious, gas-sputtering, on-the-verge kind of car, an alloy of testosterone, technology and size, made by people who live in a postindustrial city but work with their hands, who get satisfaction from the screech of metal on metal, who have given up on the virgin and gone after the dynamo.
In general, the urge to embellish a car can be traced back to the painted buses of Panama, the decorated ox carts of Italy or the impulses of isolated folk artists like Bob Daniels, who installed faucets all over his car when God told him to clean up his act. In tandem with the art car, the macho art car has developed, with its roots in hot rod fever and the hypersexy low riders of Chicano culture. Even before the term "art car" gained currency in Houston, there were macho art cars.
One of the earliest acknowledgments of car art in Houston came in 1984, when contemporary art enthusiast Ann Harithas curated an exhibit called "Collision" at the University of Houston's Lawndale Art & Performance Center. "Collision" included artist Larry Fuente's famous Mad Cad, a Cadillac elaborately coated in multicolored beads and knickknacks, with a flock of stylized flamingos riding over the trunk.
Significantly, at least as far as the progress of art car machismo is concerned, Harithas provided the UH art students, among them future art car greats Noah Edmundson and David Best, with go-carts. They proceeded to decorate one in a Christian motif and the other with sports paraphernalia. Then, in a staged battle dubbed "God Not Sports," the Christian go-cart attacked the sports go-cart over the issue of watching football on Sundays instead of attending church. One video camera and both go-carts were destroyed in the fray.
Even before "Collision," though, guerrilla artist Scott Prescott had built what was arguably the first macho art car in Houston, the Ghetto Blaster. As a former Lawndale student, a special-effects movie man (Nightmare on Elm Street, Robocop) and founder of the Urban Animals (the roller skaters who used to take over Houston's downtown streets at night), Prescott is the prototypical macho art car maker. His best stunts in the early '80s involved automobiles. He wrapped a car, with beer cans thrown in the back seat for effect, around a tree near Mecom Fountain. On Allen Parkway, he staged a crash landing: a parachute and dummy dangled from a telephone wire up above, while a single-seat combat "plane" (fashioned from a Firebird) was half-buried in the ground below, a long skid mark behind it in the grass.
The Ghetto Blaster was half rusted-out Impala, half Chevy Caprice, with tank treads for wheels, a large oxy-propane cannon mounted on the windshield and a flamethrower on the back. The car didn't have an engine, but Prescott hauled it as far away as Los Angeles and Chicago for art exhibits.
In 1986, artist Rachel Hecker and salon owner Trish Herrera organized a parade to showcase artists like Prescott and Jackie Harris. Participants with art cars drove -- some of them in reverse -- down Montrose, and those without art cars skated, twirled batons or just carried their paintings. The parade ended at the Museum of Fine Arts sculpture garden, which was holding its grand opening celebration with a performance by composer John Cage. But Prescott wasn't ready for a finale, and he took the Ghetto Blaster, flanked by a cadre of Urban Animals and accompanied by a live rock band, back up Main Street, a cloud of black smoke trailing behind.
In 1988, the parade became an annual event organized by the Orange Show Foundation. This year, there are 240 entries from 21 states -- many times the parade's original size. As the event has grown, Prescott has lost his taste for it. What with entry forms that have to be filled out in advance, a predetermined route and schedules to conform to, Prescott says the parade is more trouble than it's worth. Artists who loved the rowdy lawlessness of the early years gripe about increased regimentation, not to mention a perceived corporate attitude. And this year, the parade's new name -- it's gone from "Roadside Attractions: The Artists Parade" to the "Bank United Art Car Parade Powered by Pennzoil" -- has only deepened their discontent.