Revolution in Chrome

"It's a funny little museum, isn't it?" asks big, white-haired Jim Harithas, surveying his domain. The answer -- oh, yes -- is too obvious to wait for, so Harithas paces around the Art Car Museum, stopping occasionally to admire the works already in place, mentally rearranging them to accommodate two new shows.

But oh, yes: It is a funny little museum. You know it as soon as you lay eyes on the building, a silvery onion-domed thing punctuated with spikes and a red plastic star, like a stoner's model of the Kremlin. A vicious-looking barbed-wire-and-chain-link fence protects the museum from a funky stretch of Heights Boulevard -- and perhaps more to the point, lends the place a tough, macho air. Nearby, a sign designates a grassy field as the museum's official parking lot. Next door, there's a Citgo station-cum-convenience store; across the street is Carmadillo, the hulking metal-scaled creature that lurks outside sculptor Mark Bradford's studio. The Museum District, this ain't. And that suits Harithas fine.

Outside, you see the kind of works you'd expect from something called the Art Car Museum -- that is, particularly splendid examples of the genre, of vehicles used as much for personal expression as for transportation. Under the tinny carport lolls a stretched-out David Best fantasy barely recognizable as a car. Shiny, bright-colored doodads cover every inch of the surface, layers of beads, buttons and cheap toys, the detritus of a thousand Happy Meals. A tubby plastic Michelin Man serves as the hood ornament. You can't help but look.

Inside, a rotating cast of such cars offers itself for your inspection. Depending on when you're there, you might see the one that looks like a starlet's red stiletto, or the one that resembles a giant bunny, or a particularly astounding low-rider. Some of the other exhibits feel like variations on the main theme -- not art cars, but car art. One of Andy Mann's video installations uses a stack of TV sets to run video clips from Houston's annual art car parade. Mel Chin covers a tire in snakeskin and calls it Road Killer. A backlit George Hixson photo captures smooth-headed car artist Mike Scranton, his eyes hidden behind goggles, a welding torch brandished like a weapon, a car in flames behind him.

But many of the museum's exhibits, including the two shows Harithas is now installing, have nothing at all to do with cars. Jim Hatchett's "Dirt Paintings" is four abstract canvases "painted" with soil and sand and rocks; Ron Hoover's "Mr. WTO" is a series of small unnerving paintings that mostly depict shadowy businessmen. Both shows make overt political statements: Hatchett's Butterfly Hill is named in honor of Julia Butterfly Hill, the eco-protester who spent two years living in a redwood; Hoover's nightmarish Mr. Maxxam, a/k/a Charles Hurwitz depicts her nemesis. Even the two shows' opening party, on the Friday before Memorial Day, will possess a left-wing social conscience: Houston's Green Party will be stationed at the door, soliciting last-minute signatures on its petition to add Ralph Nader to Texas's presidential ballot.

To the uninitiated, the museum's juxtapositions seem weird: Why, other than for color, is a car that looks like a starlet's red stiletto pump positioned in front of a pro-union painting of oppressed farm workers? Why would Ralph "Unsafe at Any Speed" Nader garner support at a place that celebrates cars?

But to Harithas, it all coheres. In his "Art Car Manifesto," posted near the front of the museum, he argues that art cars are revolutionary by nature: When a dull, mass-produced machine is transmogrified into something weirder and wildly personal, the artist is "rescuing the automobile from corporate uniformity," striking back against the bland consumer culture that suffocates our souls.

It's a '60s kind of argument; Harithas is a '60s kind of guy. When he calls something "subversive," he means it as high praise; "revolutionary" is even better. He knows, good and well, that the red star atop his museum can be read as something other than the Lone Star of Texas.

This latest opening excites Harithas, makes him edgy. It's a chance to show off artists he thinks the world needs to see; it's a chance to make a political statement; and it's a chance to host a raucous party, the kind he's always loved. Pacing the museum, he radiates a surprising star-of-the-school-play nervousness.

Surprising, because Harithas is hardly new to all this. At 67, he has curated hundreds of shows and presided over nearly as many opening parties. Thirty years ago, he was considered one of the hottest, most avant-garde museum directors in the country.

Such moments don't last long. In 1978, after Houston's Contemporary Arts Museum very publicly let him go, Harithas's career appeared to be over. And for nearly 20 years, it seemed that way. Harithas lay low.