Hot wheels? Weird wheels!

This weekend, Gallery Horse Cow throws a party on Del Paso, replete with noise bands and dark comedy, to celebrate art cars—those rolling paeans to DIY automoblie design

Pop singer Britney Spares and art-brut impresario Steve Vanoni show off the latest addition to Homeland Security’s arsenal, the quite inconspicuous “Camera Van” by Harrod Blank.

Pop singer Britney Spares and art-brut impresario Steve Vanoni show off the latest addition to Homeland Security’s arsenal, the quite inconspicuous “Camera Van” by Harrod Blank.

Photo by Larry Dalton

So you want to be an artist? OK, fine. There are a number of good community college and university art programs to choose from in the area. Pick the one you can afford and we’ll see you in two to six years.

What’s that?

You want to be an artist, right now, this very weekend?

All right. Here’s what you have to do. You know all those Sacramento King bobblehead dolls you’ve been collecting? Take ’em out to the garage and glue ’em on to the outside of the minivan, so that the minivan sorta has this warty skin of wobbling, bearded heads. Then pack the family off to Gallery Horse Cow on Del Paso Boulevard this Second Saturday, May 11, from 6 to 10 p.m., because gallery owner Steve Vanoni is throwing an art-car bash. And not only are you invited—you’re in the show.

Nervous? No need to be. Aesthetics won’t be a problem, because when it comes to art cars, there are no aesthetics—save the DIY, anything-goes variety. The same philosophy informs much of the work Vanoni features at Gallery Horse Cow, which is the reason Vanoni has brought the art cars here in the first place.

“That’s what my gallery is all about, self-taught artists,” he explains against a backdrop of paintings by so-called outsider artists, naïve works that use mud and honey instead of paint, cardboard and scrap metal instead of canvas. Vanoni’s got nothing against artists who’ve received professional training or actually use real art supplies—he’s one himself, and a successful one at that. But a love for the unconventional has drawn him toward the outsiders who do what they do simply out of passion, because they must do it, and he sees the same characteristics in the art-car people. “These guys aren’t necessarily artists,” he says, “but they get this idea that they’re going to stick stuff all over their car, they’re going to make this thing.”

Then they hang with that idea. They’ll glue pennies or old CDs over every square inch of a car’s sheet-metal skin. They’ll extend fender fins to absurd, aeronautically unfathomable heights. They’ll build horror-house additions on the back of old hearses big enough to sleep a family of four in. They’ll cover a car with bark, or a school bus with grass—actual, living grass that has to be watered or it dies. To the art-car people, nothing is sacred—particularly the automobile.

Noted art-car enthusiast Harrod Blank calls this need to alter an otherwise perfectly decent mode of transportation the “urge to personalize.” It is a declaration of self amidst a homogenous, self-absorbing culture, and for some, the urge can be all-consuming. Take Blank, for instance. The son of director Les Blank (Gap-Toothed Women, Burden of Dreams), Harrod has written a book and produced two documentary films about art cars, in addition to helping organize art-car events across the country. The Berkeley resident will be on hand Saturday night, hosting a special outdoor screening of Wild Wheels, one of his documentaries, and showing off his own art-car creations, “Oh My God!” and “Camera Van.”

The first vehicle, a VW Bug adorned with windmill daisies, a globe, plastic fruit, a skull and other objects, is probably what most of us think of when we hear the phrase “art car.” Like all of the cars in the show, it’s street legal, and its name derives from the reaction the car evoked from passersby when Blank first started driving it around Berkeley years ago. Provoking such responses is the main reason Blank continues to make and promote art cars in the first place, and for many years, he attempted to photograph the astonished faces of onlookers from the driver’s seat of his altered VW. But once they’d see the camera, the spell would be broken, and Blank was never quite able to capture their surprised gazes on film.

Thus, “Camera Van” was born. It is an impressive and somewhat sinister work. Blank has somehow managed to fasten more than 2,000 individual cameras to the outside of a van, forming an intense, rectilinear mosaic that adheres closely to its own intricate visual logic. When viewed in profile from a distance, the entire right side of the van is revealed to be a surprisingly accurate pointillist depiction of a Kodak Instamatic. Don’t stare too long. Many of the cameras are functional, and Blank has been known to hide inside the van, snapping away, displaying dramatically enlarged photographs of his unwitting subjects at the next show down the road.

Vanoni and Spares examine another vehicle: “If we enter this in the demolition derby, the other drivers will die … of heart attacks.”

Photo by Larry Dalton

Other art cars scheduled to appear include Petaluma artist David Best’s “Nevada Car,” a hulking vehicle studded with beads, poker chips and dozens of those plastic figurines McDonald’s gives away with its Happy Meals; something called the “Colt Mobile,” and the “Rock-and-Roll Car,” which comes complete with a PA system, amplifiers, guitar jacks and enough juice to keep it all humming. Art-car owners are a rather nomadic lot, and Vanoni is expecting more than a few unannounced drop-ins. He’s also encouraging local art-car buffs to bring their vehicles by the gallery for what’s shaping up to be one of the most outrageous events to hit Del Paso Boulevard in recent memory.

“I’m trying to create a circus-like atmosphere,” Vanoni says, working off a handwritten list that includes musicians, performing artists and a host of individuals blessed with assorted strange and unusual talents. “It’s happening in real time, real space, and it’s the real deal. It makes it a hell of a lot more fun than just another art show.”

He’ll squeeze as many cars as he can get into the gallery, then start filling up the vacant lot next door. He has employed four noise groups—Überkunst, Delayed Sleep, Disaster Economics and Art on a Stick—to provide the evening’s aural entertainment. These are “groups, not bands,” Vanoni cautions, serious noise specialists, so if you’re expecting some sort of rock ’n’ roll hootenanny, forget it, although Überkunst will have the honor of plugging into the “Rock-and-Roll Car” during their set.

Intellectual stimulation will be provided by The I Can’t Believe It’s Not Comedy Players, a local performance-art group frequently known to test the line between humor and vulgarity. “They’re dark, maybe too dark,” Vanoni muses. “I might have to get them to tone it down a bit. Kids love art cars, and I don’t want to scare the kids off.”

Toning down the self-proclaimed Loudest Man in the World, another oddball guest slated to appear, won’t be so easy. The last time Vanoni saw the Loudest Man in the World perform, he was decked out in full Viking regalia. Unannounced, he walked into the room, intoned a few brief but excruciatingly loud selections, then left without saying a word. Like one of those Tibetan monks, the Loudest Man in the World (Vanoni doesn’t even know his real name) can sing more than one tone at the same time. Unfortunately, he has a knack for picking notes that don’t necessarily go together that well, at least to ears accustomed to what we have traditionally called music.

On a more “up” note, local female impersonator Britney Spares will perform a melody of car-related tunes in a sexy send-up of everyone’s favorite Pepsi-pitching wench, Britney Spears. “She really knows how to work a crowd,” Vanoni says admirably, referring to Spares, not Spears.

Art cars, noise bands, drag queens and the Loudest Man in the World sound like the makings of a helluva party. But is it art? There are some critics who will say that “do it yourself, anything goes,” whether it’s applied to art cars or outsider artists, isn’t much of an aesthetic. Vanoni, who has traveled to New York City for the past 20 years peddling his own wares—whimsical yet sophisticated abstract paintings done in large formats that occasionally fetch handsome prices—doesn’t disagree that there needs to be some standards in the art world. But he questions standards that place limits on who can be an artist and what art can be, denying both artists and audience the right to free expression.

“It’s all valid subject matter, the whole human condition,” he says. “Everything about being a human being should be fodder for the art world.”

Including, yes, the automobile.

“The car is such an integral part of the American psyche; it is an extension of ourselves,” he says. That makes art cars valid, in his view. “I believe in the form. I think it is a happening form, one worthy of sharing with people.”

What’s in it for Vanoni? Not much, it seems. He isn’t charging admission, and the art cars aren’t for sale. Mostly, it’s the juice he gets throwing a Del Paso Boulevard bash for the 500 to 1,000 non-paying customers he’s expecting to show up, and from showing us something we haven’t seen before. But you never know.

“Maybe I’ll sell a painting,” he shrugs.

Stranger things have happened at Gallery Horse Cow.