Detail view of hood art for the “Orbach” car by artist Brandon Bird and airbrush artist Oscar Mendoza (all images courtesy Brandon Bird)

LOS ANGELES — Artist Brandon Bird has been mashing up pop cultural references for years. His odd twists of culture have most often come in the form of whimsical oil paintings, including Christopher Walken tinkering with a robot in his garage workshop (“Lazy Sunday Afternoon”) and Bea Arthur wrestling raptors (“Killing Machine”). Bird also likes to place contemporary celebrities in art historical tableaux. “I like being able to drop Mr. T into the middle of a robustly painted scene from Greek mythology and have people be like, ‘Wait, what the heck am I even looking at here?’” said Bird, in an email interview with Hyperallergic. “The things that are funniest (at least to me) are the things that you cannot expect to exist, and when you encounter them in some form it’s like your brain short-circuits.”

Among his most popular characters are the various cast members of the Law & Order franchise, including Bird’s especial favorite, actor Jerry Orbach, who played detective Lennie Briscoe on the original Law & Order for 12 seasons.

The “Orbach Car,” surveying Los Angeles from on high

“Most of my subjects are dudes,” said Bird, “and that’s because I’m trying to use humor to either make fun of or subvert really stupid forms of masculinity, or play up what I think are more positive male archetypes. Jerry Orbach falls into the latter category. He’s everyone’s favorite uncle. He projects a certain world-weariness, but never cynicism. His character on Law & Order is someone who is confronted daily by death, but always chooses humor over despair.”

Detective Lennie Briscoe, played by late actor Jerry Orbach

Most recently, Bird launched a Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $23,000 to fund a long-gestating plan for “ORBACH1,” which transformed a formerly black 2008 police cruiser found on Craigslist into an airbrushed rolling masterpiece commemorating his hero. This is Bird’s first foray into car painting, but his second crowdfunded art venture — the first being a cross-country road trip he undertook to painting the Sears department stores of the nation en plein air.

Repainting a classic police cruiser is a natural fit to commemorate the iconic TV detective, but there is also perhaps something quietly subversive about commandeering a vehicle once used by real-life police officers and claiming it for artistic purposes. The car was sanded down, re-primed, and given a candy paint job in “pagan gold” (really a combination of two colors, an opaque yellow-gold base coat and a coppery translucent overspray). To execute his vision, Bird worked with airbrush artist Oscar Mendoza and the Santa Ana body shop Diamond Coats.

“We walked around the car and plotted out the rough ideas for the graphics (i.e. ‘portrait of Jerry on the hood, like a votive candle, with rays of light behind him’),” said Bird. The final product is truly a wonder to behold, and has been soliciting responses, ranging from delight to bafflement, any time Bird takes it out for a spin.

Trunk detail from the “Orbach” car

“My favorite response so far happened on an early morning while I was parked on a residential street in San Diego,” said Bird, “when a cowboy literally walked out of the mist to tell me how much he enjoyed watching Law & Order reruns with his wife.” Bird quotes the cowboy: “Sometimes it’s an older [episode] before he came on the show, but I say, ‘Give me a Lennie.’”

While Bird draws interest and a great deal of support from the Comic Con crowd, he delineates a distinction between his work and the more generalized practice of “fan art.”

“’Fan art’ generally has one purpose, which is to help the person making it to relive or process the emotional experience they had with a movie, book, or TV show,” said Bird. “I’m trying to come up with things like a subscription box where I send people weird items and products that should never exist — so whether it’s a painting, or a Nic Cage colorforms set, or an Orbach car, what I want is for people to think, ‘Where did this come from? What dimension am I in?’”

It’s certainly a world that’s a little brighter, with this rolling memorial to justice on the streets — and the power to intervene in reality is, after all, part of the function of the artist in society. Bird is realistic about the impact of this latest project, but also conveys a kind of optimism that would make Lennie Briscoe proud. “I don’t think an Orbach car is going to defeat Trump or whatever,” he said, “but I do think that all we can do in the face of shit bags doing shitty things is to double-down on our own efforts to do enjoyable, non-terrible things.”

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...