Put differently, Overfelt is not your average artist turned backyard tinkerer. Over the years he’s recast the car as an inflatable, and in another instance, he crushed it into a tidy cube, an act worthy of John Chamberlain. He also stages public performances, one of which got him arrested. It happened in 1998 during a street performance. With the rear wheels of the Trans Am parked in a puddle of water-diluted bleach, Overfelt locked the brakes and floored the accelerator, producing a huge cloud of smoke. The SFPD charged him with “criminal misdemeanor, speed contest.” The speed clocked: zero. Overfelt made art out of that, too, enlisting Richard Serra’s brother, Tony, to defend him and the famous courtroom sketch artist, Walt Stewart, to record the proceedings. The charges were dropped.
By now it’s pretty clear that the era of Hydrocarbon Man is drawing to a close. With that in mind, I can’t think of a better way to both celebrate and mourn its demise than with Guy Overfelt, the SF conceptual/performance artist who’s staked a substantial part of his quasi-outlaw career on making art with automobiles. Specifically, a 1977 Pontiac Trans Am, the same model Burt Reynolds turned into a bestseller via Smoky and the Bandit. Much of the artist’s production in this realm has centered on “burnout” prints, monotypes made by placing heavy paper stock beneath smoking tires — driven to immolation by a V8 engine revved to 8,500 rpm. It makes Robert Rauschenberg and John Cage’s 1953 collaboration, Automobile Tire Print, created with a Model A Ford, across 22 feet of paper, seem almost quaint by comparison.
Overfelt, in a 2007 interview, described the differences by detailing the cost of creating friction-based prints out of burnt rubber: “five engines, fifteen sets of wheels and tires, several fuel systems, brake configurations and exhaust and suspension set-ups as well as two fabricators, a couple of tow vehicles, one auto transporter, garage/studio/storage leasing and many 50-gallon barrels of hi-octane fuel.”
His latest provocation, Freebird: The Never-Ending Joy Ride (1998-2014), can be seen at Evergold Gallery. There, he and owner Andrew McClintock, shoehorned a hand-built replica of the original Trans Am into the small storefront and set it on a custom-built hydraulic lift – a feat that required the removal of the front door and the plate glass windows, leaving about six inches of clearance between the car and the walls. You can squeeze through, but McClintock, prefers, upon spotting visitors, to elevate the car so that you can walk underneath and admire the details.
A quick glimpse reveals that nothing remains of the original car except the hood with its iconic Phoenix emblem. The undercarriage and interior are gone, replaced by a maze of meticulously welded metal tubes. The result is a functional open-air sculpture capable of reaching 200 miles-per-hour in less than seven seconds. The drivetrain has yet to be installed, but its absence hardly matters. Exquisite details abound: gleaming stainless steel ice containers (in the trunk and in the cab) to cool the engine; a cage around the gas pedal (to keep the driver’s foot from slipping off during acceleration); a chromed steel bucket for a seat; a torque-activated ball joint on the differential (for added stability at takeoff); countersunk screws the size of quarters holding the hood in place; rivets sanded flush to the body; and lastly, a mysterious lever near the ceiling. It’s attached to a cable that the driver pulls to release a parachute at the quarter-mile mark.
If you’ve attended car shows (the Oakland Roadster Show) or drag races (like those once held in Fremont) these modifications probably won’t rank as revelatory; however, appearing as they do in the context of an exhibition that opened shortly before the anniversary of 9/11 and our return to war in the Middle East, these attributes of American muscle car culture do two things at once. They thrill that part of you that remains permanently locked into the mindset of speed-crazed teenager, while awakening the adult part that understands all too well the hideous consequences of our addiction to fossil fuels. As with the photos of Edward Burtynsky where toxic enterprises appear beautiful, so it is with Overfelt’s hopped-up Trans Am. We understand the havoc wreaked by cars, yet we can’t stop ourselves from loving them. Arousing these contradictory emotions and forcing us to confront them in this slightly claustrophobic environment is a brilliant stroke. For me it lit up memories of Fremont Drag Strip in the mid-‘60s, where stripped-to-the-bones dragsters outfitted with massive engines piloted by men from Florida, Texas and Oklahoma blew minds by spewing smoke, flames and deafening roars. It wasn’t high culture, but it was definitely a high. One not destined to last.
As Walter Benjamin once remarked: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
–DAVID M. ROTH
Guy Overfelt: “Freebird: The Never-Ending Joy Ride (1998-2014)” @ Evergold Gallery through October 4, 2014.