Left​: ​Ken Kellerher’s “Exponential Vespa​” / ​ ​Center​:​ Alexandra Bircken’s ​“Janus” (2016) / ​Right​: ​Chris Labrooy’s ​“Flamingo Porsche 911” Giclée fine art print on Semi gloss paper

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armans long term parking contemporary art car sculpture

Arman’s “Long Term Parking” (1982) Sixty Cars in concrete, Chãteau de Montcel in Jouy-en-Josas, France

A modified Yamaha sheds wheels in deference to rockers. Pristine white Vespas radiate like spokes on a wheel. A pink Porsche 911 transforms into a flamingo pool toy. Are these displays of fetish? Artists have hit the metal on the autobahn of high-performance imagination. There’s no (speed) limit to these sculptural flights of fancy as automotive parts implode, retreat, curl into themselves, exhibit stress or are sawed in two. From graphic designers to sculptors to furniture designers, artists reimagine the automotive world.

Perhaps the French artist Arman, who constructed the obsessive “Long Term Parking” (1982), decades ago, was onto something. He witnessed the readymades of Marcel Duchamp and embraced a vision of “transforming everyday objects into art”. This idea resonates still today but on a larger scale as artists gleefully adopt automobile, vespa, bicycle and motorcycle parts as fodder.

The Iconic Vespa

Ken Kellerher’s Exponential Vespa contemporary art modern art sculpture

“Exponential Vespa” Image courtesy of Ken Kelleher

The echo of seeing everyday objects in a new way is best expressed in Ken Kelleher’s dynamic “Exponential Vespa”. An onlooker is forced to do a double-take. Conjoined white vespas radiate like spokes on a wheel. The uniformity of the handlebars and contrasting black-and-white colors keep the eye in play. 

Circular in motion, the overall effect is hypnotic; the experience is reminiscent of looking through a kaleidoscope or watching synchronized swimmers. “Exponential Vespa” radiates from the center as do buds on a flower.

“I like the Vespa as an object because it is a recognized design that is iconic and beautiful…In this sculpture, I like the idea of taking a well-known object and playing with its meaning – an “object-ness” by distorting or transforming it in some way. My multiplying it in the form of a circle is its’ original function of driving [which] has been taken away. Its design now asks the viewer to reinterpret it.”

– Ken Kelleher

The Distressed Automobile

Distressed never looked so alluring but in the hands ​of artist Charles Ray, ​Daneil Arsham ​and furniture designer Ron Arad, cars take on an ephemeral quality.

Charles Ray unpainted sculpture rob arads pressed flower navy blue

Left: Charles Ray/ “Unpainted Sculpture” (1997) / Right: Ron Arad’s “Pressed Flower Navy Blue” (2013)

Painted in a matte gray finish, Charles Ray’s “Unpainted Sculpture” (1997), is a distressed Hinoki in situ. Sideswiped, the car takes on a ghostly appearance. An exposed bonnet reveals crushed engine parts while the front tire is flattened and leaking air. The front bumper lies mangled. Against a backdrop of lively museum occupants and activity, “Unpainted Sculpture” seems content to fade into the background.

Furniture designer Ron Arad takes a different approach and views the distressed auto as assemblage. After decades of bending materials like steel and aluminum into sculptural seats and tables, he repurposes a vintage Fiat 500 to mimic a flattened cartoon.

In recent years the industrial designer has been experimenting with his more artistic side, creating sculptures made from actual cars, bringing them to the Netherlands, where they were inserted sideways into a 500-ton shipyard press in the Netherlands and pressed flat into 12-centimeter-thick sculptures. (- from “Ron Arad Brings His Pressed Flower Series to Los Angeles”)

Fatigued and two-dimensional, “Pressed Flower Navy Blue” boasts a palette of blue, beige and faded saffron and retains the air of scrapyard detritus.

Daniel Arsham’s ​Cast of a Ferrari contemporary art modern art sculpture car

Daniel Arsham’s ​“Cast of a Ferrari”

Artist Daniel Arsham is definitely a car man. Known for his work with scarred objects in glacial rock, marble and plaster, he handles the classic Ferrari in the same fashion. The famed automobile suffers the violence of punctuations but its imperfections are muted by the uniformity of its color. Sculptural, “Cast of a Ferrari” holds the glacial appeal of a classic roman alabaster statue.

“I took functional things and turned them into nonfunctional things; I took three-dimensional objects and turned them into two dimensions…I decided to immortalize it because that way it will stay forever.”

– Ron Arad

The Beloved Volkswagen Beetle

ichwan noor beetle sphere damian ortegas cosmic thing

Left:​ ​ Ichwan Noor’s​ “Beetle Sphere” (2016) /​ Right:​ ​Installation of Damián Ortega’s ​“Cosmic Thing” ( 2002)​ Volkswagen Beetle 1983, stainless steel wire, acrylic, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, Italy

A flattened surface is not the preferred aesthetic for Indonesian artist Ichwan Noor. He repurposes one of the oldest nameplates in automotive history – the once ubiquitous Volkswagen’s Beetle and compresses it into a ball. The famed love bug is immediately recognizable. The car, launched in Germany in 1938, at one point, reached sales of 21 million worldwide.

Large in scale, “Beetle Sphere” (2016) folds into itself as if elastic. Perfectly orbital and round, the piece seems capable of rolling off the exhibition floor by its own volition. Both wheel well and tire emphasize the curvaceousness of its’ classic design.

damian ortega installation Cosmic

Installation of Damián Ortega’s ​“Cosmic Thing” ( 2002)​ Volkswagen Beetle 1983, stainless steel wire, acrylic, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, Italy

Artist Damian Ortega takes on a more expansive view of the Volkswagen Beetle as it relates to space in “Cosmic Thing” (2002). He disassembles and reassembles it piece-by-piece. The installation commands the entire gallery space as elements hang in midair. Viewers are forced to observe the disparate floating pieces by walking around the room. “Cosmic Thing” projects weightlessness. Wheels, wheel wells, car doors, a steering wheel and the chassee implode and gather simultaneously. Skeletal and spare and monotone in color, the work is an exposition on its inner construction and forces the viewer to look closely at a vehicle that has lost its cultural significance.

The Bicycle as Ode to African Headdress

tji wara mother and child no1 willie cole willie cole Bamana Tji Wara

Slide 1​: Willie Cole, ​“Tji Wara Mother and Child No. 1”, (2008),​ bicycle parts, 33 x 16 x 32 in. / ​Slide 2:​ Bamana Tji Wara”

Cultural significance is a signature in the work of Willie Cole. The powerful “Tji Wara Mother and Child No. 1”, (2008) is an ingenious reworking of bicycle parts. Mining his own African-American heritage, Cole creates works that celebrate African art and culture and confronts viewers with the painful history of slavery in America. “Tji Wara Mother and Child No. 1”, (2008) points to the artists’ heritage by retaining the dynamism imbued in African sculpture. The aggressive thrust suggests movement and primal energy. Bicycle seats mimic heads while handlebars pose as limbs.

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alexandra bircken janus lop lop

Left​: Alexandra Bircken’s ​“Janus” (2016),​ / ​Right:“​Lop​ ​Lop​” (2019) by Alexandra Bircken

There’s no dearth of movement or primal energy in the works of Alexandra Bircken. In “Janus” (2016), the artist has reassembled a Honda touring motorcycle and rendered it inoperative. Sliced in half like a Houdini figure, the motorbike is cut clean through like a confection. The inner anatomy is exposed. The sculpture is stark in red, black and white. A symbol of power and masculinity, “Janus” (2016) remains stationary. The work is discombobulating in that it brings a disorienting collision with automotive assembly. “Lop Lop” (2019) likewise disorients a viewer by stripping a Yamaha speed bike of its power. Hobby-horse rockers form the base in lieu of wheels. The promise of rocking symbolizes sexual movement. Its power of speed, however, is now nil. The disparity of wooden rockers against a metal infrastructure emasculates a symbol so long associated with speed and bravado. “Lop Lop” (2019) attests to an object associated with speedways now a fixture in a gallery setting.

Indeed, artists the world over continue to echo the sentiments of Marcel Duchamp and Arman before them. Perhaps to explore fetish, reassert immortality or to question notions of masculinity, artists reimagine the automotive world in ways humorous, witty and always eye-catching.