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by Judith Christensen

“Rehilete para rodar/Shuttlecock
to Remember,” oil on canvas
on VW fenders, 49 x
27 1/2 x 18” each, 2000

"Para Pavimento com Memoria I,"
etching on tire, 2000.

"Milagro y Acciedente Cruzado I & II,"
( top & bottom), oil on car hood, 2000.

"Necklace," steering wheels with
golden ornaments, 2000.

(Iturralde Gallery, West Hollywood) The car as icon has a long and varied tradition in Mexican culture--where Betsabeé Romero has her roots--as well as in the artworld. Romero’s take on it has progressed from the very familiar--using the whole vehicle as canvas, to the less expected--using car parts out of context, as in her etched tire series. En route, she’s moved across the fuzzy line that separates decorated object from aesthetic object.

At times, she uses multiples of one kind of car part. Rehilete para rodar/Shuttlecock to Remember is composed of eight, painted VW fenders. In Salpicaderas de coche, Romero chains together steering wheels she has painted. Although they are still easily identifiable as car parts, by joining them together to create another unrelated form Romero has stripped them of their essential car-ness and focused our attention on their basic structure rather than their intended function.

Granted the Ford/Firestone fiasco has altered our perception of tires forever. Now comes Romero’s Para pavimento con Memona series. Instead of road tread, these tires have images of flowers etched into their smooth exterior surface. Removed from their usual context, they become objects in their own right, rather than simply car parts. We notice how black they are; we appreciate their particular circular form; we take note of the continuous exterior surface that serves as ground for Romero’s images. The patterns and the surface take us from pop culture--which the object itself suggests--to another place, another time. In Para pavimento con Memona II the linear quality of the flower and the black background evoke the traditional ceramic blackware produced in San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca. The quality of the etching and the pliability of the material also bring to mind Mexican leatherwork.

In her Milagro y accidente cruzado series as well, Romero derives her inspiration from traditional Mexican culture, then adds her own quirky touch. In mood, these paintings call to mind Frida Kahlo: the way the figures fit into the landscape and their subject matter of personal trauma, bodily injury. But the ironic twist--that these paintings of traffic accidents are painted onto car hoods--is pure Romero and undeniably contemporary. As we delve into the details we come full circle, returning to the roots of Mexican culture. On each of the hoods is text that explains the circumstances of the accident. In the corner, a saint appears. Beside the road, loved ones --a spouse or parent--kneel to give thanks in prayer for the milagro or miracle. And so, these paintings become ex-votos, religious offerings.

Everything in this exhibit is, was or could be part of a car. But is it really about cars? Only obliquely. Romero utilizes the car as a vehicle for exploring her cultural heritage. And, in a culture that historically has held onto some of its most ancient traditions while continually evolving by adopting the new, including the foreign, it’s not surprising that Romero chose a pop icon as the means to her artistic and intellectual end.