Soluna, the Dallas Symphony’s first international music and arts festival, has opened this week. Concerts, performances and art shows will be held through May 24th in the Arts District. But one of Soluna’s more unusual events will happen outside the district. KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports it involves a car parked in a warehouse in West Dallas.
It seems the sound of George Washington crossing the Delaware is the chest-rattling rumble of a classic Chevy V8.
Of course, we all know the historic painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. It‘s by the German-American artist Emanuel Leutze — currently in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. General Washington stands heroically, if a tad precariously, in a boat as his army pushes through the frozen Delaware River. The amphibious operation was the most dangerous part of Washington’s daring attack on the British garrison in Trenton, New Jersey, late on Christmas Day in 1776.
Fun fact: The Met’s painting — the only surviving one of the three versions Leutze created — has gone on loan only twice, one of which was to Dallas in the early ’50s.
But back to that 350 cubic inch V8, which was dropped into the stripped-out shell of a Datsun 280Z sports car, and is almost deafening me. I have to yell at Pablo Moreno to be heard: “That. Thing. Sounds. Awesome.”
He kindly shuts it off.
So why choose the 350 engine — from a Suburban of all things — for the Datsun?
Moreno laughs, “It’s the one we found.”
Meaning, as large-scale and ambitious as this is, it was a classic scrounge-what-you-can art project. (A Ford Mustang was the original plan — couldn’t afford one.) Moreno is owner of Tandem Automotive in Fort Worth, and he found the shell, finagled the engine and transmission, installed the roll bar and the racing seat, assembled the vehicle.
But Pablo’s not the person to ask about what a modified 1975 sports car has to do with Washington Crossing the Delaware. That would be his older brother, Francisco Moreno, the idea man behind this automotive version of an epic tableau. The Dallas artist moved here from Mexico in 2007, got his bachelor’s in fine arts from UT-Arlington, then his master’s at the Rhode Island School of Design. Last year, he won a $3,500 grant from the Dallas Museum of Art for his proposed art installation. It would include the car in front of a life-size, 12 foot-high-by-20-foot-wide re-imagining of Leutze’s painting.
OK, so why the car?
The heart of Leutze’s painting, Francisco notes, is Washington and his troops “on this boat, this vessel. So I became interested in incorporating some kind of vessel into the project, but a real vessel that was more connected to our everyday routines. I then became fascinated with the idea of incorporating a car.”
Because: America. Because: North Texas. Because: Have you seen our commute times around here?
So the 280Z — Back-to-the-Future-like, Delorean-like — is meant to transport Washington directly into our own age. But Moreno’s 280Z doesn’t look like any other 280Z ever made. Francisco painted both the car and Leutze’s famous image using black and white stripes and jagged, fragmented patterns. It looks a little like Cubism with a migraine. The style is inspired by what was called dazzle (or razzle dazzle). It was a type of naval camouflage developed by the British during World War I. Remember, this was before sonar: Dazzle didn’t actually hide a warship; it merely confused enemy observers trying to target it with their guns, calibrating the ship’s distance and speed.
“It disrupts the profile of the ship,” Moreno explains. “And it’s hard to see if it’s turning or which way it’s going. So it’d be difficult to tell how far a ship is just because of the hard-edged abstraction.”
The Cubism reference wasn’t an idle joke: Picasso once claimed his Cubist paintings had inspired dazzle. And it certainly is an irony of history that just as Picasso and Braque were using geometric abstractions to overturn the way people viewed painting, the Admiralty was using abstract jigsaw puzzle-patterns to overturn the way the enemy might see their warships.
But still, why pick on Leutze’s painting like this, breaking it into shards and parking a noisy car in front of it? The theme of the Soluna festival, Moreno points out, is ‘Destination America,’ and Washington Crossing the Delaware is not just an American icon; it’s a globally recognized one. Leutze painted it in 1850 to inspire Europeans to unite and rebel against their own kings and emperors. So Leutze re-figured Washington’s Continental Army as a heroic, idealized cross-section of the new country. There’s an African-American soldier in Washington’s boat, a native American, another man wears a Scottish tam o’ shanter cap.
Moreno says he wanted to create an artwork that didn’t specifically reflect his own Mexican background but addressed the wider nature of American identity. So he adapted a British camouflage technique to re-paint a work by a German-American artist that includes a Japanese car — and “by working on this with my Mexican brothers, I wanted to do something that highlights the melting pot.”
In fact, the 280Z itself may be Japanese, but inside – Pablo pops the hood locks and opens up the engine compartment — inside, it’s another story.
“The engine is from a Suburban,” he notes. “The transmission is from an ’85 Camaro, the filter is from a Mustang. And then wiring up the car: I took all the factory wiring off, and I made my own wiring harness.”
The car is as improvised and stitched-together as the United States is. Plus, it’s got Firestone Firehawk tires, and a line-lock — a device for keeping the brakes set on the front wheels but freeing up the rear ones, the better to ‘drift’ (a controlled slide) or pull doughnuts. Needless to say, all this took a lot more than the DMA’s $3,500. Moreno raised another $17,000 through a Kickstarter campaign, and much of his brother’s labor is still coming in gratis.
This means Moreno’s art installation is also a performance piece. Or a high-performance piece. The car and the painting will be displayed for two weeks in the warehouse at 2900 Bataan Street in West Dallas, a couple blocks from Trinity Groves. Then, for one evening, May 23rd, in front of the painting, the 280Z will do what it was built to do.
Cue the squealing and the smoke. George Washington won’t be battling ice or the British.
He’ll burn rubber.