PreDigital, CrafTint Duo-Shaded, BenDay Zip-a-Toned, Rub-Down Lettered “CARtoons” Comics Art

What hath Ed “Big Daddy” Roth wrought? In August the Rat Fink aesthetic of Southern California’s Custom Car Movement King—immortalized over a half-century ago by the Wolfe in white clothing as “the Salvador Dali of the movement”—gnawed its way into the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

What? Yes! 

Across from LACMA’s blockbuster magic-and-monsters main feature starring Hellboy’s and Pan’s Labyrinth’s Guillermo del Toro, and up through a rodent’s maze into a side-room, you’d gaze upon printed covers and pages and actual artwork from L.A.-based CARtoons magazine, conceived back in the midcentury of hot rods, tail fins, and drive-ins. That’s CAR, as in the show’s Art of America’s Car Culture subtitle. And “toons” as in the mostly 1960s and ‘70s insider laff-riots back in the day, maybe not so much now, but still… bitchin art!!!!

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© Errol McCarthy, courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“The only humor magazine in the world for the lovers and owners of cars“ was filled with funnies about drag-racing and off-roading, about Chevys, Mercs, ‘Vettes, and lubed-up fantasy vehicles inconceivable anywhere else. Forget the Motor City. Because there in the vitrines were vintage, browning objets d’pulp, like a magazine spread by Palos Verdes-bred, Murph the Surfing, pre-psychedelic poster and Zap comix contributor Rick Griffin. And another by lowbrow’s High Priest Robert Williams, who acquired his early art chops by hacking out ads and graphics for Roth, and who later became Juxtapoz’s founder, Helter Skelter’s comics feller, and San Fernando Valley’s one-man Northridge earthquake.

And all over the walls were… originals!, produced in all their vintage mid-century commercial art supply store acquired glory. Here’s an outer space cyclers painting by DC Comics art legend Alex Niño!, most outstanding among the 1980s Phillipine illustrator invasion. There’s a Harvey Kurtzman-inspired “History of the Car” spoof strip from bootleg record album cover designer William Stout! And hey, look: a couple of suitable-for-decal-ing crazy cars by Mad mag’s Monte Wolverton, spawn of Mad comics’s Basil W. And here and there, remarkably fun, hip, and sassy Jack Davis-flavored brush renderings from the unfairly under-recognized Shawn Kerri, straight outta Covina, before she became punk poster designer for the Germs and the Circle Jerks. And, yes: several other worthy ink-and grease-stained ‘toon wretches.

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© Monte Wolverton, courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art

This particular museum’s auto-‘tooned infestation was, of course, inevitable. After all, it’s the institution that, back in the ‘80s, started a string of shows with the city’s own Pope of Pop Art Ed Ruscha, his Standard Stations of the crosstown traffic traveling eternally from here to oh-so-pretty Oklahoma City and back while a man comes on the dashboard radio telling him moe and moe ‘bout some useless, unwanted retrospective. And even further back, in 1966, it featured the “revolting, pornographic, and blasphemous” déclassé chassis of a ‘36 Dodge created by that other Ed, junk sculptor Kienholz, which simultaneously scandalized the County’s Board of Supervisors and steered carloads of gallery-goers to opening day, where a non-avant guard would open the passenger door only to adults, so that under-18s couldn’t sneak a peek at this teen-age body constructed of chicken wire, crammed in the back seat and fornicating! on top of a body in stockings, this one totally plastered, while Glenn Miller’s String of Pearls and other period pop tunes ejaculate from yet another dashboard radio, tuned in to KFI. Comparatively, the LACMA CARtoons cartoons are mild and innocent. Hey, kids: comics!

Pete Millar, Ed Roth’s fellow Weirdo Shirt designer, conceived and began producing CARtoons in 1959. Millar was the star of the Pasadena Museum of California Art’s Tales from the Strip: The Hot Rod Comics and Drag Racing Cartoons of Pete Millar in 2008, five years after his death. And while we’re on the subject, in 1994, three years after the magazine’s demise, its publisher, “Pete” Petersen, opened the Petersen Automotive Museum on L.A.’s Museum Row, within easy strolling distance of LACMA.

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CARtoons, issue #1, 1959

Earlier this month the show made its way off Wilshire, up Fairfax and east along Hollywood Boulevard to La Luz de Jesus Gallery, house of pop culture paintings, posters, and other such paraphernalia. It also transformed into another exhibit entirely, with feature focus on studio animation prop designer Tom (Fox) Marnik, plus brand new Millar-time tributes by the likes of lowbrow art pioneer Anthony Ausgang and… and… scissor-handed Franken-weenie Tim Burton!!!, for Shmee150 sake. It’s closing this weekend, so you’d better get your motor running.

Meanwhile, I contacted Britt Salvesen, the curator of prints, drawings, and photography, to get the show lowdown and some highlights. Turns out it all started way, way back in 2009, when Burton movie art director and former CARtoons intern Albert Cuellar showed her his stacks of old drawings he’d acquired. Salvesen is a dedicated paper-era artifact preservationist and archivist. Very graphic designer-friendly, her film-related exhibitions—Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters; Haunted Screens: German Cinema of the 1920sUnder the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa, Art and Film—incorporated production design, cinematography, and poster design. She also did an exhibition of Ruscha’s prints that drew attention to his origins as a graphic designer. I also made a pit stop at La Luz to get filled in by director Matt Kennedy. Here they both are. So, hey: fasten your seat belts.

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© Tim Burton, courtesy La Luz de Jesus Gallery 

Michael Dooley: Britt, tell me how CARtoons fits into LACMA’s big picture.

Britt Salvesen: During the seven years I’ve been here, I’ve seen hierarchies between “high” and “low” dissolve in several different exhibitions, from the 2011 landmark exhibition California Design 1930-1965: “Living in a Modern Way” to the series of film-related shows starting with Tim Burton and continuing through Stanley Kubrick and Guillermo del Toro. Since artists have long taken inspiration and energy from popular culture, and cartoons in particular, it’s a natural evolution for us.

Dooley: And then there’s LACMA’s recent efforts to build one of the country’s most important graphic design collections…

Salvesen: The graphic design initiative—undertaken by the departments of Decorative Arts & Design, and Prints & Drawings—definitely created a new context for displaying this material. While posters may be the format that lends itself most readily to museum display, we recognize that graphic design flourishes in so many other contexts, comic books included.

Dooley: What was the research experience like?

Salvesen: I had a great time learning about the tight-knit community of artists who were regular contributors to CARtoons. It was great to start to understand the in-jokes and references in the comics.

Dooley: Any pieces you wanted to add but couldn’t?

Salvesen: I hoped to include the original art for a 1975 Robert Williams’s story, but he doesn’t know where those drawings ended up. So [collector] Glenn Bray kindly loaned a copy of the issue in which it was published.

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photo: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Dooley: Any personal favorites?

Salvesen: I really love the stories that spin out embellished histories, such as Shawn Kerri’s “When I was a Kid,” William Stout’s “History of the Car,” and Errol McCarthy’s “Cars of the Future.”

I met Errol at his home in Long Beach. In addition to his incredible drawing skills, Errol is also a toy designer with a boyish sense of humor. He showed me a photo of a Mattel Hot Wheels car he designed in 1998, titled “Hot Seat.” Look it up and laugh!

Dooley: And what have you personally enjoyed about the viewer responses?

Salvesen: It’s been great to see that a devoted CARtoons fan base thrives to this day. And that men still bond over cars! I loved overhearing a young guy say to his friend: “My dad will love this!” .

Dooley: It had a lot to offer the graphic design community as well…

Salvesen: Yes! First off, it was a master class in how to publish comic books before digital technology: you could see the now-vintage materials and the hand work. Depending on one’s age, this was either a time capsule or a nostalgia trip. Also, it brought together a community of artists, editors, and fans in a positive way. Although we now tend to do this on social media, there are precedents in print media like CARtoons.

Dooley: How might others build on what you’ve initiated, beyond Art of America’s Car Culture?

Salvesen: Most of these artists are still going strong. And there’s a lot more art where our show came from. Of course, a publication would really be a great idea!

Foxmarnick_Carvin-and-Hope$ © Tom Foxmarnick, courtesy La Luz de Jesus Gallery

Dooley: And Matt, how did you go about structuring La Luz’s show?

Matt Kennedy: Since this is an extension of sorts of the one that was at LACMA, our selections couldn’t include any of the pieces that were included in that show, as the works haven’t yet been returned. So we had to make subsequent selections from what was available. As a curator, I’m mindful of the complications that can arise in sourcing pieces from multiple contributors, so it was a relief to be able to source so many of the types of pieces I wanted to include in Tom Foxmarnick’s collection. Most of the original CARtoons art came from him. And I narrowed my selections down to what you see in the show after multiple trips out to Ventura to look at and photograph the work, while also paying multiple visits to the LACMA exhibit. What could have easily been a handicap turned out to be an advantage, allowing me to build on the excellent presentation rather than settle for what was left.

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© Shawn Kerri, courtesy La Luz de Jesus Gallery

Dooley: How else is your shows different from LACMA’s?

Kennedy: I’m always interested in how different curators select from the same bodies of work, so I was happy to see that LACMA left out pieces that I would’ve insisted on having. Certainly there were beautiful pieces at the LACMA show that we couldn’t access—including the great Errol McCarthy cover—but we were able to cover the scope of comic book production art with color guides, pencils, inked collaborations and, of course, the two gorgeous Shawn Kerri pieces.

Plus, we didn’t utilize any reproduction prints. And we got to showcase the tribute pieces from Tim Burton and the other modern fans of CARtoons.

Dooley: And what was that process like?

Kennedy: [Tim Burton movie artist/designer] Albert Cuellar, who was central to getting the CARtoons show going at LACMA‚and the Tim Burton show a few years back—approached [owner] Billy Shire and me before the LACMA show had opened with an idea of doing simultaneous exhibitions, but our schedule favored following the LACMA show. Albert put me in touch with many of the original CARtoons artists. He’d wanted to include tribute works in the LACMA show but they opted against that, in some cases after the artists had already gone ahead with the work. I was able to provide exhibition for these piece in our show, and I think they really enrich the exhibition. Albert put me in touch with Tim’s people, and I’ve known Ausgang and the others for several years.

Dooley: What’s down the road for Pete Millar’s legacy?

Kennedy: Pete’s wife and daughter came to the exhibition. We had a full show selected by the time I was able to get in touch with them, but I included a few original issues of the magazine, including an issue with a Millar cover that published some of the pages on the walls. I’m now very much in communication with them, and am planning a visit to see their vast collection of Pete’s work.

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CARtoons cover, Shawn Kerri

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© Errol McCarthy, courtesy Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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photos: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

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© Tom Foxmarnick, courtesy La Luz de Jesus Gallery

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© Tom Foxmarnick, courtesy La Luz de Jesus Gallery

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LACMA exhibition photos © Michael Dooley


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