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Victor Gastelum's CD art

By Josh Kun

JUNE 5, 2000:  The lowriders recently on exhibit at the Peterson Automotive Museum in Los Angeles do it like this: Bobby Valenzuela's painting of the Bonnie and Clyde Chevy has a tommy gun and bags of loot in its trunk; Julio Ruela's 1939 Chevy Master Deluxe is flossed with mohair upholstery and an old turntable; inside Tony Montez's 1948 Chevy Fleetline there's a place to hang your hat and a fan to keep you cool. But we know very little about the Chevy lowrider on the cover of Más Allá, a six-song EP from a new crew of East LA funk instrumentalists who keep the slow-and-low-car tradition alive in their name, Slowrider. It's a painting by Victor Gastelum, and like all of his work it's a hybrid of spray paint and stencil cut from acetate film.

The Slowrider Chevy is streaked red and black, and it leaves behind a blinding white wake. Unlike classic lowriders, this one is without a boulevard or even a car show. There's no public space here -- no Friday-night cruising strip, no family barbecue, no crowd of cholos waiting for a bounce demonstration. The car is frozen in motion, flying through a purple stormscape of puffed-cloud craters and leaden planes of charcoal.

Excess and specificity are central to the lowrider aesthetic, yet Gastelum's car is vague and ghostly, a color-enhanced automotive X-ray that gives you form and feeling over content and artifice. Its lines are blurred, its interior a mystery -- more an intimation of a lowrider than a representation of one. We don't even know how far its suspension has been lowered or where it's going. Just "más allá," or farther from here, into a visual unknown.

Before Slowrider, Gastelum sprayed a '60s Chevy Milagrosa on the cover of Calexico's 1998 album The Black Light (Touch and Go), a collection of imaginary Southwest desert noir tunes full of dusty spaghetti-Mexican guitar strums and mariachi trumpets. Gastelum painted just the front end, a forward-marching dart of black body paint glowing with neon daiquiri ice-green trim. Above it is the band's name in classic Chicano Gothic lettering. The result looks like a cropped Mexican calendar painting advertising a band instead of tires or cigarettes.

On the back cover of The Black Light, Gastelum superimposes a Virgin bathed in green over the front of the Milagrosa, her halo suddenly resembling a hubcap. The Mexican working-class Mary who appeared before a peasant is now the hood ornament on a piece of working-class art. Gastelum brings the sacred down into the folk-art profane. As he writes in the recent collection Ciudad Hibrida/Hybrid Art: The Production of Art in Alien Territory (SCI-Arc Public Access Press), "Mixing these images and creating a new image from them is not only like being able to talk in several languages at once, but also inventing a new one in the process."

There are no lowriders on Calexico's latest, Hot Rail (Touch and Go). Instead, Gastelum adds three new stencil-spray works aflame in a tinted orange haze to his gallery of hybrid chicanismo cool: a modish ex-chola who looks straight out of a Love and Rockets comic lighting a smoke, the vibrating cover image of a welder blasting a scrap of track rail, and on the back, a retired gang-banger in a buttoned-up coat and ski cap. Taken together with Gastelum's images for The Black Light, these stencils envision urban Chicano style -- lowriders, spray-can graffiti placas, cholo gear -- relocated to the deserts and labor towns of a Southwest projected on blank screens of dueling colors: black and green, black and orange, black and red.

There's a strong sense of identity in all of Gastelum's characters, but it's an identity that's been dislocated from familiar visual contexts. Like painter Solomon Huerta's pastel back-of-the-head portraits of Chicano men, Gastelum's spray-paint stencils push at what curator Rita Gonzalez recently described in Art Issues as "post-Chicano" art: art born from within the aesthetic traditions of Chicano visual history that gradually -- by generational increments -- moves outside of them.

The only one of Gastelum's Hot Rail images with any background location is the smiling old-timer. But he's not spraying his name on the wall or flipping switches on an Impala. He's standing against a paper-thin cathedral wall of gold and white between two obelisks of divine light, with a slight once-was-a-gangster lean and with his hands in his coat pockets. He's a proud, chest-puffed symbol of everyday divinity, heroic grace that's brute and mundane.

Gastelum gives him no legs. His body vanishes beyond the trim of his long coat. He's been taken from somewhere and brought here, pasted into a make-believe world of superhero welders and sky-streaking lowriders where it's perfectly normal for him to be a god.

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