There are no Texas quail rigs in the Whitney Biennial, but then again New York casts a long shadow of bullshit over American aesthetics, its credentialed scenesters busy strip-mining consumer culture to produce elaborate corporate pranks. Don’t spend the last days of empire playing irony hopscotch in a fetid urban hell. Burn Bushwick to the ground and head to Texas — not Austin, Texas; Texas, Texas — where, amid unparalleled natural beauty, one of this country’s great unsung folk art practices is thriving.
A. Lokey’s Texas Quail Rigs is a remarkable new photo book about open-air trucks and sedans modified to a singular purpose: the hunting of very small birds across great tracts of land with varying amounts of style and (mostly) overwhelming force. Though one might argue that overwhelming force is the American style, what distinguishes these quail rigs is the breadth of the forms they take. Laid bare in the expository magazine style with which Lokey composes his shots, the images inhabit an alluring yet tortured valley between Car and Driver and National Geographic.
And cars, indelibly linked as they are to the development of American geography, take on an entirely different identity as quail rigs, post-car vehicles fashioned alike from American classics, German military trucks, or icons of global luxury. Here they are remade as rough-hewn instruments of leisure harkening back to “democrat wagons,” the horse-drawn hunting perches favored on the “genteel” Southern plantations of yesteryear, as Henry Chappell writes in the book’s creepy but fastidious introduction. (Worth noting here is the small but active market for similarly modified vehicles for desert falconry that took off in the 1980s in the Arabian peninsula, including this custom model by renowned Italian designer Franco Sbarro.)
Houston-raised Lokey’s inclinations are just as precise, dutifully noting each vehicle’s owner, make and model, city and ranch, the builder behind the modification job, and an inventory of sundry details, e.g.:
Aluminum 6 compartment dog box, water tank, lower storage, couch and 2 captain chairs, headache rack with drink holder and shell storage, wide running boards, front steel platform with 2 swivel seats, dog box, 2 leather scabbards.
Is this the last honest art? The violence of the hunt, though unseemly to some animal-rights activists, is transparent, the rigs’s affect a mix of utility, ingenuity, and self-expression. And in a counterpoint to the activity’s aristocratic heritage outlined in the introduction, Lokey catalogues the ranch hands he encountered along the way in the book’s final pages, naming and thanking them next to a portrait of each.
Though the trucks are mostly shot in the brush or lightly posed from above, the surroundings sometimes offer incongruous clues. A trio of uncanny triangular sculptural works, an “art installation” attributed to El Tule Ranch manager Lavoyger Durham, is visible in one of the photographs. Searches for the artist’s name don’t bring up any traces of the usual self-promotional material. Durham’s only mention online appears to be a single citation in USA Today for building “water stations” on his land to help save those crossing over illegally from Mexico from dying of thirst.
He tells the reporter that he’s found 25 bodies on the ranch in the past 23 years. “I’m trying to expose the killing fields of Brooks County,” he says.