Gallery-goers in North Oakland last Saturday absorbed the connections between art, anthropology and automobiles at the premiere of an art show called “Diagnostics,” a collaboration between Oakland artists, social scientists and car mechanics. Over the course of the two-year project, the three groups joined to create an interactive art space at the North Oakland auto shop, Enthusiast Automotive.
About a hundred people came to the show to view photographs, drawings, sculptures, paintings, video, and audio that document everyday life at the auto shop. The project sought to celebrate the role of the mechanic and demonstrate how the daily life of the auto shop is an artistic activity in itself.
On Saturday night, a rarely-used office space at the auto shop was transformed into a gallery for hanging art, and sculptural works occupied next to the main garage space. “I liked the idea of situating the art outside of the usual gallery scene and putting it in a place amongst the people,” said Daniel Gallegos, one of the project’s artists.
A video interview of one of the mechanics was projected onto a white linen sheet inside one of the garages. The sound of drilling, hammering and metal being tossed around poured from the speakers. It echoed through the large, dark garage replicating what a regular day at the shop might sound like. Around the corner in the narrow gallery space, a DJ spun reggaeton as neighbors and art aficionados studied the auto-themed photographs and paintings hanging on the wall produced by several different artists. In the center of the room was a rusty sculpture constructed from found auto parts, a joint project between one of the artists and mechanics.
“These guys are making art,” Gallegos said of people who work regularly with cars. Standing in lot filled bumper-to-bumper with junk cars, he was looking at an old paint-chipped Chevrolet pick-up truck, just one of the many cars the auto shop had salvaged from a wreck. “They turned something that’s smashed and crumpled and made it straight,” he said. “Often their skills exceed any artists.’”
Gallegos and his wife Zhanara Nauruzbayeva,who recently received her Ph.D. in anthropology at Stanford University, are two of the four founders of Artpologist, a collective of artists and social scientists who combine art and anthropology to visually document architectural, social and geographic changes in urban environments. Nauruzbayeva was assigned to fieldwork for Stanford in Kazakhstan and Kirgizstan in 2007. Gallegos, a painter and graffiti artist, traveled with her to document the art scene there. Together they combined their findings and Artpologist was born.
“Being an artist is responding to your environment,” Nauruzbayeva said. “You’re an open organism. You’re constantly learning and soaking things in. It’s the same with an anthropologist, the output is just different.”
“I write dissertations,” she added. “Daniel paints.”
Diagnostics, their latest project, was the result of decision to document something closer to home. Gallegos has been an Oakland resident for over two decades had been curious for several months about Enthusiast Automotive, a neighborhood auto repair shop located behind Lois the Pie Queen at Adeline and 60th Street. In the beginning, Gallegos, who lived a ten minute bike ride away, practiced the art of simply hanging out and getting to know the mechanics.
“I wasn’t sure if we could make art out of a mechanic shop,” Gallegos said, “But then I learned that there was something here, something tied to community.”
In those first few months Gallegos and Nauruzbayeva tried to figure out how they could find a way to make art with the mechanics. It’s part of Artpologist’s mission to document—but also to collaborate with—the subjects themselves. But Gallegos said that was tricky in a space where people are busy working on cars. “We tried to not annoy them,” he said. “Most mechanics aren’t willing to even take the time to give us this space.” But the mechanics at Enthusiast Automotive and the artists got along so well, Gallegos said, that the “hanging out” continued for two years.
“Our philosophy is you can’t situate yourself as an artist taking pictures, you have to be part of it,” Gallegos said. One photographer with the project took several weeks to get to know the mechanics before shooting a single photo.
Keith “Speed” Pinckney, the owner of Enthusiast Automobiles, specializes in the maintenance of old vehicles. “I’ve always had a passion for cars,” he said, “I look at it as an art form then just doing repairs. You do that to pay the bills. I look at it a little deeper.”
Pinckney, who also paints and sketches, said he appreciated the interactive and collaborative efforts of the artists in the project. Over the two-year project, Pinckney said he came to consider Gallegos, Nauruzbayeva and the other artists good friends. “They asked me interesting questions,” he said. “It was all very cool.”
Gallegos and Nauruzbayeva particularly wanted to learn about the culture of the auto shop; one of the mechanics told Gallegos it reminds him of a 21st Century blacksmithing shop because you learn a complicated craft that’s often passed down through the family. They also spent a lot of time getting to know the role the shop plays in the surrounding neighborhood, which transitioned from a white upper middle class neighborhood in the 1950s to the predominately blue collar African American and Latino community it remains today, and how the economy, politics and new environmental regulations affect the way auto shops run their businesses.
“It’s definitely an element of culture,” Gallegos said of the auto shop. “It’s someplace that people have to go to when their cars need work.” Gallegos said the artists observed how the downtrodden economy meant more people were trying to maintain their automobiles for a longer time, which meant that people’s cars came in worse states of repair.
Gallegos found that the auto shop served as an informal center of community life in the neighborhood. Men of different ages come there to work on their own car projects and to ask advice on issues from automobiles to relationships. “This place plays out like a stage for car troubles. Not only are the mechanics mechanics, but they are also like therapists,” Gallegos said.
“I’m a small neighborhood garage,” Pinckney said. “I guess you can call me a dinosaur.” Pinckney, who owned an auto repair shop in San Leandro for 15 years before he relocated his shop to Oakland, has seen the transition of more people going to the dealership to get their car fixed instead of using smaller garages. “But you don’t actually get talk to the technician that is going to work on your car,” Pinckney said. “It used to be more hands-on. I’m kind of the last of that around here. You can actually reach out, touch me and tell me your problems.”
Nauruzbayeva and Gallegos are moving to New York in a couple of weeks for Nauruzbayeva’s post doctoral fellowship at Columbia University but they hope the show will continue operating out of the same space indefinitely or just for a while longer until it moves to a new venue. “The afterlife of the project is important,” Nauruzbayeva said who hopes to showcase the video, paintings and sculptures in future gallery venues.
“In the end, we found a lot of new things,” Nauruzbayeva said. “We were witnesses to the way a lot of our neighbors have handled this economic downturn and are downsizing, trying to recycle and depend on their community more.”
For more information about the project and how to view an art slideshow, visit artpologist.com