Lyman Allyn’s “Chandelier” Exhibition Celebrates Our Fascination with Cars and Motorcycles
November 16 – If your local art museum exhibited 55 lifelike paintings of washing machines, would you look at them? What about microwaves, or even computers?
I did not mean it.
Paintings of cars, maybe? On the one hand, they are just another machine essential to modern life, arguably less so than computers.
But cars, man, they’re cool.
That’s enough reason to go see “Luster”, a celebration of automobiles and motorcycles, at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London. The lively and sometimes breathtaking spectacle renders his subjects in styles of realism and hyperrealism, paintings that strangely resemble photographs.
The idea is as American as cruising the freeway, singing on the radio with the windows open so no one can hear you. The connection you feel with your vehicle at this point may be the same that makes you want to enjoy cars like art.
Are we still a car obsessed country? Maybe a little less in the age of Uber and Zoom, but not by much. The show seems to correct that by featuring largely older vehicles, which somehow cast a stronger spell.
You feel the connection as you watch the grille of a 1931 Rolls Royce Phantom II glistening in the sun, or admire the pragmatic profile of the Ford GT40 that dominated at Le Mans in the late 1960s. The canvas is so large, the details so realistic that you want to take a lap.
The exhibition is a traveling exhibition organized by David J. Wagner who has been traveling the country since 2018. About fifteen contemporary artists are represented, the works of each grouped together, often illuminated by their commentary.
The paintings vary in style and subject, but many have two things in common. First, the framing is tight on the vehicles, without a lot of scenery, people, or other context. Sometimes a hubcap is the whole scene. Second, there is an endless fascination with the reflective properties of sheet metal and chrome.
“Reflections on the surface of automobiles allow the viewer to go further, to see something more than form,” writes artist Cheryl Kelley. “There is a quality of mystery that I feel with reflections that I want to convey, to take the viewer out of the mundane, into a dream world.”
Another artist is less interested in dreams than in popular culture. In four acrylics on canvas by Robert Petillo, what is reflected is not mysterious, it is our world. “Heartland” shows a fragment of a small town’s main street glistening in chrome. A flag pole, post office, and gas pump are warped in different ways when the sun catches them in various places on a Harley-Davidson.
âI took over 150 photos and used the best of the best to create this painting,â Petillo writes.
In his “Frankie’s Root Beer Stand”, the fender and bumper of a 1937 Oldsmobile coupe are the two means of reflecting the place where the title was restored. The same scene, with a carhop on skates at the counter, is taken in both places, but it is full and rounded in one, squashed and elongated in the other.
Some artists use cars to mirror other cars, such as in “Candy Apple Tuxedo” by John E. Schaeffer, one of the first paintings to welcome visitors to the gallery. The scene is an auto show, and the body of a 1940 Ford reflects another Ford of the same vintage in a triple portrait. It appears bluntly on a door panel and more fantastically on the curves of the front and rear fenders.
Richard Lewis developed the idea of ââreflective cars in a series of watercolors he wrote based on his twin sons. The series is represented here by “Alfa 8Cs”, which again depicts two similar vehicles nearby at a trade show.
âIt took quite a few shots for the highlights to be perfect,â he writes, noting that the painting took 600 hours over seven months to complete.
Joseph Santos, who also works in watercolor, frequently focuses on urban and industrial objects like machines and neon signs. When he turns his attention to cars, he follows his usual approach of “seeking out the abstract patterns and beauty created by rust, dirt, steel and other weathered and decaying materials.”
His four paintings zoom in on details of vehicles that have seen better days. The headlight of a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air is edged with rust and the pale green paintwork has worn away on the hood. The grille of a 1962 Ford Falcon fills another canvas, the dented hood unable to fully close. These are classic cars, but not the sparkling restorations on display at summer events. Instead, the artist celebrates the authentic scars of high mileage and the onslaught of time.
A more comprehensive view along these lines is Harold D. Zabady’s “Timeless Beauty”, an oil on linen that shows an old E-Type Jaguar strapped to a tray, on its way to scrapyard or, hopefully, restoration. . The heavily corroded body still displays the alluring curves that made it an icon in the ’60s and’ 70s.
A minority of artists choose vintage motorcycles as their muse, and the result is often extreme close-ups that explore the tangle of pipes that make them race.
The most interesting bicycle paintings are wider views from unusual angles, such as “Please Be Seated” by Ken Scaglia. The subject is a 1938 Harley-Davidson, the perspective is from above and the focal point is the seat. His power of inspiration is enigmatic, and he doesn’t look very comfortable either.
It’s hard to say what drives the creation of these laborious, literal representations, but their hold over the viewer is undeniable. While the answer is elusive on the web, in at least one case it is evident in the title.
Four watercolors by Kris Preslan show alluring classics from the 1930s and 1940s. With obvious desire, she named the paintings “Cars I’ll Never Own”, nos. 9, 10, 12 and 15. One of them is a fascinating front view of an MG with its side hood panels raised. The headlights watch quietly as if to say, “That’s right, you’ll never own me.”
Probably not. But if you can’t own it, maybe painting it is the best thing to do.