Inspired by abstract expressionist painters of the 1940s, John Chamberlain moved his pieces into a third dimension by carefully bending, shaping, and welding old sheet metal into pieces of art that capture and reflect light in tremendous ways. He used automotive sheetmetal as a medium for his art from the late 1950s all the way through his death in 2011. His pieces were influenced by the aforementioned abstract expressionism, as well as neo-dadaism, pop art, and Marcel Duchamp’s objet trouvé style.
I was lucky enough to see the above two pieces [White Thumb Four on the left and Blue Brownie on the right] at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam a bit over a year ago and they’ve been stuck in my head ever since. To see these broken scraps become something intriguing and strangely beautiful tapped into the root of why I love cars to begin with. They are more than the sum of their parts. A fender is but a fender, but as part of a whole, it serves a purpose.
When staying with a fellow artist in 1957, Chamberlain was inspired by the curviture of a 1929 Ford fender he found on the property. To get it into the shape he wanted, he drove over the fender a few times with his own car. This created the creases and shapes that he was happy with, creating his first automobile-parts-as-canvas sculpture, Shortstop shown here.
As his art progressed, he learned the art of automobile sheetmetal painting in the depths of Southern California hot rod culture, debuting a few pieces with impressive metal flake and airbrushed details. Pieces like Miss Remember Ford from 1964 are exemplary of his additional learned skills.
This crude form of fender bending disappeared from his repertoire a few years later as he grew tired of critics associating his bent pieces of Cadillac with metaphorical readings like “the cost of American freedom” or other such nonsense. His art was chaotic riffing to make things appealing to the eye, and nothing more, according to the artist.
Chamberlain experimented with folded and tied foam, aluminum foil, brown paper bags, and large stainless steel sheet for a period in the late 1960s to get away from the association with car parts, but returned to his old friend the junkyard for a source by the mid 1970s. “I saw all this material just lying around against buildings, and it was in color,” he said, “so I felt I was ahead on two counts.”
If you can’t see the art in a bunch of scrap metal, you’re not alone. In 1973 two of his larger pieces, weighing several hundred pounds each, were mistaken for junk outside of a Chicago gallery warehouse and were carted away to be scrapped. This anecdote is part of why I love Chamberlain’s work. Much like some of my own cars, it’s easy to mistake the complex shapes and haphazard welds for trash, but to the cognoscenti, they mean a great deal.
Most recently my wife and I attended the Palm Springs Art Museum and not doing any prior research I was pleasantly surprised to find Chamberlain’s 1988 sculpture Bees Knees among the exhibits. Of the handful of the man’s works I’ve seen thus far, I think this is my favorite. It’s a simple amalgam of plain white sheet metal interfolded with sections of chromium-plated bumper and trim. As a freestanding piece, this one allowed me to walk all the way around it and admire the way the chrome bounced the light. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend it.
When I first discovered Chamberlain’s work, I found myself trying to determine which cars provided which pieces. After a little while of looking, I’ve decided I don’t think it really matters. The artist used to refer to the broken cars in the junkyard as the manure fertilizer for his art; the waste material from one thing that becomes the life-source for something else, bringing a new entity into existence.
Would that we all aspire to re-use something once thought broken and bent beyond repair to craft something wholly new and interesting. If this is something as involved as yanking a functional engine from a wrecked car to power your hot rod, or as simple as creating a piece of art by running over an old fender and tacking some metal rod to it, in either case that piece destined to be shredded has gained new life.
Even if it’s ugly, isn’t that beautiful?