Revolution in Chrome

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The bulbous, exuberant building -- the work of artist David Best -- can be read as a rebuttal to the CAM, Houston's other silvery museum. The CAM's sleek building feels cool and detached, a slice of minimalism in a noisy, extravagant city; the Art Car Museum looks hot and engaged, and even weirder than its neighbors. From the street, the way-out building raises unnerving questions: Is that thing really a museum? Is it safe to go inside? Why does it need that barbed wire? Are they trying to keep the weirdos out, or to keep them in? But you do not suspect, even for a second, that the place will bore you.

On closer inspection, the Art Car Museum reminds you how much other institutions cast themselves as devices for the tasteful display of wealth. For instance, when you enter the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston's impressive new Beck building, you see donors' names carved into a massive limestone wall, enshrined for the ages. The Art Car Museum is pointedly not called the Harithas Collection, and in fact, Ann and Jim's role as its patrons is hard to discern; there's not even a plaque to tip you off. You might see Ann's name next to her collages, or Jim's on something he has written -- that is, they might present themselves as an artist or a curator, but not as benefactors. The art is enshrined; the money behind it remains invisible.

"Is that too high?" asks Kari Sellers, one of the museum's three young curators. She's holding a Ron Hoover painting against the wall; below it, curator Gabriel Delgado holds another.

"This is Texas," growls Harithas. "You can hang 'em on the ceiling."

Normally Harithas and his bright young curators aren't actually in the museum. They work from the Ineri Foundation's headquarters, which is to say, in Ann and Jim's backyard, in the maid's quarters behind the mansion on North Boulevard. And in point of fact, half their work seems to take place in the kitchen or at the backyard table. Andy Mann and Jesse Lott wander down the driveway without calling first; other artists drop by for opinions on their work, or for help moving a large piece. The place exudes a laid-back, improvisational vibe, like the quad of a college campus, and the arguments -- most often between Harithas and Tex Kerschen, the fiercest of his young curators -- seem downright recreational.

But this morning, a Wednesday, Harithas and his curators are hanging their next shows. Finished with the Hoover paintings, Harithas leaves the little front gallery and walks into the museum's large room, surveying it with an eye toward Saturday night's opening. He still deploys his old formula to draw a crowd: Besides the art, there'll be free food and drinks, plus Kerschen's rock band, Japanic. And here, at the museum without a board, he's free to overtly use left-wing politics as bait: Nader's Greens will show up for the petition-signing party Friday, and maybe they'll come back.

On one side of the room are Jim Hatchett's freshly hung "Dirt Paintings." On the other is one of Harithas's favorite art cars, Betsabeé Romero's Ayate, a 1955 Ford Crown Victoria whose windows are filled with dried roses, its body covered in what looks like floral-patterned upholstery. It's a deeply feminine expression of immigrants' crushed dreams, and Harithas has installed it in a kind of border stage set, atop a little hill of reddish soil.

"There's dirt on both sides of the museum," he exults. The symmetry pleases him; he enjoys making the works fit together.

Faith, another art car, is as ebullient as Ayate is meditative. David Best covered a 1984 Camaro with bezillions of cheap religious souvenirs, Buddhas mixing easily with Madonnas. To the front grill, he attached the head of a water buffalo. "This one," says Harithas, grinning, "it's all about the influence of acid."

There are two works by Harithas's old friend Jesse Lott, who has been billed as "the star of the Art Car Museum." Lott, like Hatchett and many of the museum's other artists, tends to work in "found" materials. Black Madonna, left from Lott's show last year, looks like an icon carved from driftwood; the new one, Spartacus, is a nearly human-size crucifix constructed from wire and scrounged metal. In part, Lott chose his materials from necessity: Stuff you find is cheaper than stuff you have to buy. But the discarded materials also give the works a haunting flavor; they seem more personal, more homemade, more a part of the world we live in now.

In the back room, there's Know-Mad, a video game designed by Mel Chin and a team of programmers from MIT. It's basically an arcade driving game, the kind with a steering wheel and gas pedal. The screen depicts a nomadic camp somewhere in the desert; the player drives from tent to tent seeking gold balls. The text on the wall explains the piece's heady artistic intentions -- the juxtaposition of modern cultures with traditional ones, the effect of speed on a nontechnological society, the beauty of traditional rugs set against the beauty of driving -- but the high-flown ambition doesn't frighten away neighborhood teenagers, who play the game after school.

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Lisa Gray