We all feel a little Dust Bowled recently—these are the last days of the first decade of the third millennium, and while the world didn’t explode all those 3,650 days ago, the intervening years have hit us with a dotcom bust, the deadliest attack in history on American soil, a baking planet, a pair of protracted wars and now the worst economic crisis since Okies first fled to our verdant state. It’s little wonder Time has dubbed it “The Decade From Hell.” But the national mood is more than the sum of these harrowing parts: the American Century has ended, and with it the feeling that the great experiment of American democracy has, if not failed, at least foundered. The last, best hope for Western Civilization: in decline. With our throwback love of better decades—the Fifties, the Eighties—and our popular obsession with apocalypse, our most prevalent cultural narcotics seem to be syrupy nostalgia and the thrill of doom.
Perhaps more than any other city, Detroit bridges our longing for the rosy past and our fear of a black future: 50 years ago it was Henry Ford’s dream, but today it could be the rubbly ghost town of the apocalyptic movies that fill our cineplexes. The great postwar hope was for security, prosperity and mobility, and it was in the regal American car that this trinity converged. But now Chrysler and GM and even the great flagship Ford seem archaic, their most famous models more well-preserved than virile, ancient muscle cars as sad as aging bodybuilders: the Mustang, Camaro, GTO, Barracuda. But some things get a second chance, and it is from the remains of cars such as these that sculptor Michael Kalish has fashioned his newest works, exhibited as “Rust and Renaissance” at the Riverside Art Museum.
From the salvage yards of Southern California, Kalish has stripped classic cars of their exoskeletons, sliced the hoods and tailgates into strips, further cut and manipulated those strips into metal petals, then welded those petals together to form roses bigger than a Shelby’s rims. Kalish, whose work has been featured on CBS New Sunday Morning, seems to revere these cars’ age: instead of sanding them back down to steel and repainting them in the perky metallic glossies common today, he allows the edges of his petals to remain chipped and corroded. Seeing one is the visual equivalent to hearing an early Wilco album: beautiful, rough and entirely American. Some of the roses are freestanding, some are wall-mounted on monochrome aluminum, while others bloom from steel stems encased as bouquets in minimalist vases. But don’t just look: Kalish encourages visitors to touch his work, so as long as no docents are snooping around, let your fingers trail over the petals, the grit of the old paint, the Geigering line where it crackles away from the metal, as jagged as a broken tooth. Feel the steel, stroke the scars.
But the most breathtaking part of the exhibit isn’t housed within the museum’s walls at all: recently you might have seen, at the corner of Mission Inn Avenue and Lime Street, a teal sedan crushed on its front right side. But the car is no cautionary tale to drunk drivers; pouring out of its passenger seat are nearly a dozen of Kalish’s metal roses, as surprising in their whimsical magic as Samson’s honeycomb growing inside the carcass of a lion, from the Book of Judges. Out of the wreckage of the past, glory bursts.
It is this wonder, this surprise that makes the exhibit not merely masterful, but hopeful. Kalish’s palette, despite the “Rust” of the exhibition’s title, consists mostly of primary colors and whites, the perfect scheme for a project that suggests not merely renaissance, but resurrection. Kalish describes some of his previous work as Americana, literal portraits of our cultural past constructed from license plates: Uncle Sam, Marilyn Monroe, rodeo cowboys, Neil Armstrong. But this exhibit, more obliquely historical, neither mourns nor mocks the past. Its steel roses operate according to dream logic, impossibly fanciful, but no more than the promises of futurists who a century ago were derided for their talk of horseless carriages, no more than the futurists who half a century ago were derided for their talk of harnessing the power of the sun to warm houses, powering cars with hydrogen and electricity. In an age in which these fantasies have become reality, Kalish offers steel roses as totems for an unexpected rebirth, recycled bouquets that seem to say: the best days are yet to come.
“Michael Kalish: Rust and Renaissance” at the Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 684-7111; www.riversideartmuseum.org. Thru Feb. 27.