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KPBS Midday Edition

'Cruisin' Califas' Brings Lowrider Art To Oceanside Museum

Courtesy of OMA
"Our Family Car," by artist Gilbert "Magu" Lujan, is one of three lowrider cars on view at the Oceanside Museum of Art's exhibition "Cruisin' Califas: The Art of Lowriding."
'The Art of Lowriding' at Oceanside Museum of Art
GUESTSCarlos C. de Baca, co-curator of “Cruisin' Califas: The Art of Lowriding”. David C. de Baca, co-curator of “Cruisin' Califas: The Art of Lowriding”.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. They are a part of Southern California culture. Long painted polished cars riding low and slow through the neighborhood. Now the cars and the culture of low ride ares are being celebrated as an exhibit at the Oceanside museum of art. My guests, Carlos seed de Baca, and David seed de Baca, welcome to the show. DAVID: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: They're both cocreators of Cruisin' Califas, the art of low riding. What does Cruisin' Califas mean? DAVID: It's a slang term used by Chicanos, and it refers to California. California be the birthplace of low riding, so hence let's cruise California. Oceanside is a beach town, it's a beautiful museum, and a beautiful spot for the exhibit. CAVANAUGH: It just makes you want to take a ride. DAVID: Yes. CAVANAUGH: Instead of just staying close to the museum. How does somebody become a low rider? CARLOS: I think one is typically influenced by their own family so many times. It's something that starts from your father, your older brother, your uncles, your neighborhoods. So it's really something that is generated typically in the environment that you are raised in. And certainly the culture has a lot to do with it as well. CAVANAUGH: What kind of car do you need, and what kind of attitude goes with the car? CARLOS: Well, typically you have one by the big three, a GM car, Ford, Chrysler. And from there, you go with your own design and creativity. To have an attitude as a low rider, I don't know. I think it's just something that you kind of get by osmosis and the surroundings around you, and all of a sudden, you're low riding. I don't consider myself a low rider, but I guess I would be. CAVANAUGH: All right. Now, I mentioned David, in the opening, that people are going to be able to see some cars and images displayed together for the first time. What are they going to be able to see that they've never been able to see before? DAVID: For the person that's part of the culture, this is the first time they'll be able to see some of these original art by some of these artists that have influenced the culture. They've seen it in magazine, and in posters. But they've never been able to see this original art all in one place, and for the person that's not familiar with low riding, it's a great opportunity for them to get out there, to see some actual cars in person, and see this beautiful art that influences the culture. And a lot of people see low riders on TV or movies or they hear about them in the paper. But this is an opportunity for them to see them up close. CAVANAUGH: Speaking of TV, there's a famous car, Gypsy Rose, that's going to be on display at the Oceanside museum of art. Tell us about that. DAVID: Yeah, Gypsy Rose, it's a 1964 Impala, and it was build around 1972 by Jesse Valadez. It's got over 150 roses painted on it, and over two thousand leaf petals, and they're all hand painted. It took over eight months to paint. And it was featured in the opening credits of the 1970s sitcom chicko and the man. And that's how it became notorious at that point. But since then, it's beautiful to see that this car has survived the time. And the owner who passed away last year took care of the car for all these years. His son takes care of it now, and it's a great deal to see it in person at the museum. CAVANAUGH: Carlos, one of the most influential artists featured in the exhibition is Magu. Tell us about him and his work. CARLOS: Magu is Gilbert Sanchez Lujan. Unfortunately as well he passed away last year. Magu has a educational background in art. But he came to prominence with Los for, which was a coalition of artists, four artists, him being one of them in the LA area, and they did the first Chicano art show at the Los Angeles county museum of art in 1974. He typically paints in a real bright happy style. He loves using indigenous colors. We also have one of his car, our family car, a 1950 fleet line, which is absolutely wonderful of the CAVANAUGH: A gorgeous car. I saw a picture of that. Unbelievable, the colors just jump off, and it just pops. CARLOS: Make sure you look at the interior in the front seat, he Ubolstered like a taco, and the rear seat is rolled tacos. [ LAUGHTER ] CAVANAUGH: Besides the painting on the colors and the taco seats, what other kinds of low rider art are there? I mean, what are the various disciplines that the art extends through? DAVID: Right. Well, the main focus of the exhibit is more than just the cars. It's more focused on the art, and the art that's influenced low riding. So we also have photographers that have influenced the culture, they have been featured in magazines like low rider magazine, but we have sculpture, paintings, drawing, some model scale cars that were built. And there's hours and hours of work into these cars. But the conversity of the artists can be seen on disparate by Magu, elMoises, to the more realistic paintings of after the pickle. CAVANAUGH: And what makes it low rider art? What ties it all together? DAVID: Well, one of the main things is that the subject matter used by the artists has always been low riders. And not only is that their subject matter, but they actually own and drive low riders themselves. One of the car things is that two of the cars, and the motorcycle on display, the artist who painted those also have art featured in the exhibits. You can see the mix there of how they're so tied to the low rider culture that it's displayed in their art as well. CAVANAUGH: And Carlos, there are some common themes and imagery that's used on the cars and in the art. What are they? CARLOS: Well, first of all, most of the artists do not think of themselves as artists. They're typically self-taught, with no formal art training. But as they get more and more into the low rider culture, some of these other skills come out. And we see that in the paintings of our iconic Mexican hero, such as Zapata, Pancho via. There's a lot of cars that come out that have la virgen of wada Lupe there. You see a lot of roses there. And certainly the prehispanic indigenous heritage also comes out in a lot of the art and influence there. CAVANAUGH: Lots of skulls too. CARLOS: A lot of skulls because that's part of our culture. We embrace all of life, that includes death as well. So we have, for example, Dia de Los Muertos on is a heavy influence for all Mexican and Chicano artists. And just their experiences of the artists. They're painting what they know, and that's what makes a really good artist. CAVANAUGH: Now, Carlos, we've been talking about low rider culture. When did this all start? CARLOS: Well, it's hard to say, but I would say for low riding, we can find our roots traced back to the days of early California, of Mexican culture as well, where there were the Mexican Cowboys known as the charros, and they would use their horses to work through the week. And on Sunday, they would dress up their horses in their best saddles and parade around the local community park, the kiosko. And they would go back and cruise slowly so that people could see themselves, they're dressed in their charro outfits with a lot of silver adornment, and the horses as well, with a lot of silver enbellishments there, braiding, etc. CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. Of so you trace it all the way back till then. I'm wondering, when was the heyday of low riding in California? DAVID: Well, the heyday I could say we're still in it. CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay! [ LAUGHTER ] DAVID: It's always been around since it's been around. But the term low rider probably came to light in the late '60s, when the custom car phase was kind of ats it end, and the low riders continued with these traits from the custom car phase, and they added their accessories and differences to the car. So that's when it kind of began. And to this day, it's still going strong. CAVANAUGH: You see in cruise nights events, some cars that are just, like, on their side, and driving on two wheels and stuff like that. Is that part of low rider culture too? DAVID: I would say yeah, you know, it's kind of like when the charros would walk around the plaza and their horses doing little tricks. A lot of guys like to do their cars on the side or they hit switches when they're making their car go up and down just to draw a little attention and say hey, look at me, look at my car. CAVANAUGH: Now, low rider culture is a subculture. Is this subculture embraced by most of California's Latino community? CARLOS: Well, let me say this. All Chicanos are not low riders. And all low riders are not Chicanos. We have a lot of Anglo artists, very famous Anglo artists on display there, Mike pickle, teen angel, Howard Gribble being some of them. And it's all based on your social economic background oi would believe within the culture and community. And you do have to have a little bit of money to build a really nice low rider car. These cars are in the tens of thousands in terms of value. But no, it's certainly not embraced by all because they think of it kind of like -- I kind of make a comparison to unfortunately the third like and when they had the degenerate art show where artists like Gaugin, Picasso, du Champs, were all identified as degenerate artists. I sure wish I had been around to see that particular show. But a lot of people will think of it more as a street style of art. So it can be considered a subculture that we would hope that after folks see this show, they will embrace this as one of the many cultures that exists within California today. CAVANAUGH: When you two brought a similar show, a low rider show to the San Diego automotive museum, it was the most popular exhibition they had. Do you recall comments or reaction you got from people at that time? CARLOS: We did a show in 2006 at the San Diego automotive museum. We were invited in to curate that show, and that was 2006. And the museum is still getting inquiries regarding how they can see that show. And because it was so huge, they recruited me to become a member of the board of directors of the auto museum, which I still am today. And it was fantastic, the staff still talks about it, and we're going to be doing another show hopefully in another year. CAVANAUGH: Besides the Oceanside museum of art, are there cruise nights in San Diego? DAVID: There are cruise nights. There's cruise nights all over the county. Different cities host them. I think Escondido has a Friday night cruise night. Chula Vista has cruise nights on Tuesdays. El Cajon has news flights on Wednesdays. La Mesa on Thursdays. So all over the county. Even down south on Playas de Tijuana, there's a Sunday night cruise. All over California you can find them. But locally, you can find them too. And that's a good place to see actual low riders. You won't see a lot of art in particular like we have featured in the museum. So this is the first time in history that these iconic low rider artists are featured in one place. CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you both for this. Cruisin' Califas, the art of low riding runs through September 30th at the Oceanside museum of art. Of course in Oceanside. Thank you so much. DAVID: Thank you.

They are a part of Southern California culture. Long, brightly painted, polished cars cruising low and slow through the neighborhood. Known as lowriders, these personalized cars first became popular in the late 1930s, in the wake of the automobile boom, and provided people who couldn't afford to buy a new car with a creative outlet to express their individuality.

But there is more to lowriding than just customized cars, motorcycles and bicycles. The lowrider aesthetic can also be seen in sculptures, photography and paintings. Lowriding even inspired its own genre of music, known as "lowrider oldies" or cruising music (think classic soul and R&B by Brenton Wood, James & Bobby Purify, The Dells and Billy Stewart). Both the vehicles and the culture of lowriders are being celebrated in a new exhibition at the Oceanside Museum of Art. “Cruisin' Califas: The Art of Lowriding” is the first time some of the most famous lowrider cars and images have been displayed together.

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One of the three cars on display at the museum is "Gypsy Rose", a 1964 Chevy Impala built by the late Jesse Valadez, one of the godfathers of lowriding. The car, considered to be the most famous lowrider in the world, features more than 180 hand-painted roses, and made a cameo in the opening credits to the popular 1970s TV show, "Chico and the Man" (see video below and keep your eyes peeled at about 51 seconds in).

In addition to the cars, "Cruisin' Califas" features paintings, drawings, sculptures and photography created by lowrider artists—artists who have a lowrider automobile or have built one at some point in their lives. According to the exhibition's co-curators—brothers, artists and lowrider enthusiasts, Carlos C. de Baca and David C. de Baca—the artists in the exhibition "have come to recognize that lowriding is not just about cars, it’s a way of life." Model cars, memorabilia and a cruising music soundtrack compiled by local radio DJ/lowrider Xavier the X-Man also can be seen and heard in the galleries.

KPBS Midday Edition speaks with curators Carlos C. de Baca and David C. de Baca, about the art, artists and history of lowriding.

Cruisin' Califas: The Art of Lowriding” runs through September 30 at the Oceanside Museum of Art in Oceanside. The museum is free for all on Tuesdays and always free for students (with valid ID). For hours and admission info, visit www.oma-online.org.

Lowrider "Gypsy Rose" Featured in Chico and the Man Intro
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