DETROIT — The inaugural issue of Lowrider magazine, published in 1977, features Gloria Garcetti on the cover. She is wearing an embroidered London Fog coat with her back to the viewer (she was pregnant at the time), and she shoots the camera a knowing look over her shoulder.
“She [Garcetti] embodies the radical hope and defiance that have characterized lowriding and this magazine for decades,” said photographer and performance artist Liz Cohen in an email interview with Hyperallergic. Cohen’s most recent body of work, Stories Better Told by Others, focuses specifically on the women of Lowrider, and mourning the 2015 editorial decision to no longer feature models on their covers. For Cohen, this represents a profound loss.
“I remain fascinated by the gals on many of the covers. I see them as important and defining participants,” said Cohen. “I am learning their stories and would rather not relegate them to the sidelines.”
This is not the first time Cohen has immersed herself artistically in lowrider culture, which she identifies as a crucial part of her cultural identity, growing up in Phoenix, Arizona. Over the course of eight years, for a project titled Trabantamino, Cohen custom-converted an East German Trabant into an El Camino, complete with hydraulic lifts, in the Pachuco Chicano tradition. Simultaneously, Cohen transformed her post-pregnancy body into that of a bikini model, eventually creating a series of photographs and videos that showcase both of her “body modification” feats in tandem. Much of the work for Trabantamino was completed in 2008, including the Rio Grande, Bodywork, Tools, and Zwickau Routine series. But arguably, Cohen’s greatest triumph came in 2013, when her Trabantamino won the top prize at the annual lowrider competition in Espanola, New Mexico.
Even though her interest in lowrider culture has not waned after a decade of working on and off with the subject, Cohen felt inclined to step out of the frame for this body of work, and into the role of documentarian and archivist. Her object-portraits juxtapose classic Lowrider covers from her own collection with bikini model gear or car parts, all set against tactile suede backgrounds in bright custom car colors. Overlaying each of these compositions, Cohen commissioned car detailer Bugs Gonzalez to marquee the name of each model in a stylized, custom airbrushed font. Cohen sometimes contrasts these lively visual assemblages with lithographs blanked of content, except for the graphic fields that represent the adjacent cover’s framing. This visual device underscores Cohen’s feelings about the erasure of these women from Lowrider.
“When I look at the early covers, to me, there are big stories,” said Cohen. “The cover models have agency and are part of a rich cultural history.”
Cohen recently moved back to her home state of Arizona, and it seems her intention is to track down and photograph as many of the models as she can locate. Some artists might not have an appetite for sustained focus on a single vein, but Cohen seems to draw her philosophy about this work, unsurprisingly, from the car culture that inspires it.
“The wisest tinkerers say that a custom car is never done,” said Cohen. “I feel the same way about artworks.”
Stories Better Told by Others continues at David Klein Gallery (1520 Washington Boulevard, Detroit, Michigan) through December 22.