Book Review: "Orale! Lowrider: Custom Made in New Mexico"
NOTE: In the interest of transparency, the reviewer, Bob Eckert, has photographs included in this book. He also had a large number of photographs included in the "Lowriders, Hoppers and Hot Rods" exhibit, which was held at the New Mexico History Museum.
In Don Usner’s essay in the book "Orale! Lowrider: Custom Made in New Mexico," it become abundantly clear that each lowrider is unique even if it's part of the large lowrider “family.”
The book starts with the section by Usner, which has Usner cruising with owners and visiting shops throughout New Mexico, but mainly in Northern New Mexico. Names familiar with Norteños surface frequently and it seems more of a family album than a cold, impersonal book on this segment of the car world.
In addition to his writing this essay, Usner incorporates his wonderfully strong, black and white images throughout this section, drawing the reader along with ease.
Usner brings a very personal viewpoint to his essay since its obvious that he has a love of this mobile art and the people who create the incredible wheeled machines.
What attributes to his love of the mobile artform?
“I’d have to say the appeal is in the whole package—the people and the cars. I’m really taken by the beauty of the cars, but equally so by the kindness, generosity, honesty, talent and dedication of the owners/builders,” Usner replies.
Usner does a wonderful job of bringing this group of car lovers together in this book, but you wonder if given more time, since this was a fairly quick project meant to coincide with the lowriders exhibits at the New Mexico Museum of History and Museum of Art, he would do anything differently.
“I would take more time, perhaps a year or two, to visit more lowriders and attend more shows. And maybe do a little more research that included the lowrider scene in Southern California,” Usner says.
And although Usner might have felt rushed, the book doesn’t feel “rushed” at all.
If you do any research at all on the history of lowriders, you undoubtedly come face-to-face with alternating truth about where the movement started: west coast vs. New Mexico. The historian in Usner did a remarkable job of presenting the history in a way that makes you feel confident of his writing and with his conclusions.
“I feel pretty good about the research I did. Even though there is always more to read, and more people’s opinions to consider, after reading a few books and many, many articles, and talking with quite a few people, I think I had a good grasp of the origins of lowriding,” Usner stresses.
Usner initially worked on articles for some serial publications, which kept him engaged for a couple of months, and then, when the book was proposed to him a couple of years later, he invested another several months.
“The idea was kind of floating around, with many people saying, ‘That would be a great idea, a lowrider book,’ but the museum actually contacted me to formally ask if I would write the main essay for it. I should say that Daniel Kosharek at the history museum was also very interested in seeing a book early on, when he began planning the exhibit,” Usner explains.
When asked what he felt was the most difficult portion of the book project, Usner replies, “I’d say the hardest part was knowing I would inevitably leave people out that should have been included in the book. There was just too little time, and it was tough making time to go out and visit the lowriders in their spaces, and to attend car shows. But doing so was my favorite part.”
The book is essentially done in three parts. There is Usner’s essay at the beginning, a section titled “The art of the lowrider: Interview with Meridel Rubenstein, and the section of photographic plates.
Rubenstein moved to New Mexico in 1973 to attend the Master of fine Arts program in photography and art history at the University of New Mexico. In 1980-81, she made a series of photographs of some of the state’s lowriders, both the cars and their owners.
Rubensteins photographs are different than most lowrider images in that she mainly focused on the owners as artists, and had them posing with the pieces of “art” instead of posing simply with a car. It’s a unique series and an interesting addition to early lowrider documentation.
Usner comments on it.
“I think Meridel has incredible instincts and abilities, and she nailed the worthiness of lowriders as Hispanic cultural art very early on, perhaps before anyone. And her feeling for the culture and her motivation for doing her show way back when—that comes out in the interview, along with a wider view of her perspective on art. I like the interview a lot.”
Usner thinks people are drawn to the magic and beauty of the cars themselves, and to the phenomenon as a regional cultural art form, a means of self-expression for individuals and groups, mostly in the Hispanic population of Northern New Mexico.
And it’s not just car people that are drawn to the lowrider scene. Go to almost any lowrider car show and, if you start asking questions about a certain car or club, you'll be immediately engaged with the owner or owners despite any cultural differences you may have had before this interaction.
The third section contains the photographic plates. Unlike the New Mexico History Museum exhibit which featured a really large number of images, the book refined their choices, making for fewer photographs but larger reproduction, which benefits both the photographers and readers alike.
The photographers included in the book are: Sam Adams, Jim Arndt, Hunter Barnes, Kevin Bubriski, Gabriela E. Campos, Bob Eckert, Katherine Egli, Miguel Gandert, Alex Harris, Siegfried Hallus, Kitty Leaken, Dottie Lopez, Gabriella Marks, Elliot McDowell, Norman Mauskopf, Imanol Miranda, Paul Gregory Newman, Jack Parson, Corey Ringo, Meridel Rubenstein, Travi Ruiz, Annie Sahlin, Don. J. Usner and Craig Varjabedian.
The photographs give the viewer a strong visual interpretation of the uniqueness and individualism of the lowrider culture.
Usner offers this final thought on the importance of this new book.
“The book is important because it gives credibility to this very real, very significant aspect of Northern New Mexico history and culture—an aspect that has all too often been dismissed and denigrated. It deserves better, and I hope this book conveys that.”
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