Lewis DeSoto Makes Art You Can Drive

Lewis DeSoto Makes Art You Can Drive

Jenna Hans

Lewis deSoto, Cahuilla, has been an installation artist and professor of art at San Francisco State University since the 1980s, but in recent years he’s returned to an earlier passion—a love of cars he picked up in his teens—to make subversive pieces that have fooled supposed experts.

His first work in this series was Conquest, in which he took a 1965 Chrysler New Yorker and modified it to make a fictional vintage car: A 1965 De Soto Conquest. (The last genuine DeSoto produced was for the 1961 model year.)

It is no coincidence that the artist and his subject share a name. The De Soto brand took its name from the conquistador Hernando de Soto and in fact its hood ornament was a bust of the controversial 16th-century historical figure. De Soto the Conquistador and his forces killed innumerable Natives during their exploits, both in combat and by disease—in today’s more enlightened times, one would hope that an automobile manufacturer would think twice before putting his likeness on its products.

“DeSoto as a family namesake has been a source of much confusion,” the artist writes on his website, sotolux.net. “My heritage is vaguely linked to this ‘explorer.’ Somehow my great grandfather, the Spaniard Terbosio De Soto, married into the Southern California Cahuilla tribe early in the 20th Century.  … [My] native family had this troubled name, during a time when middle class Americans coveted DeSoto Adventurers  and Coronados; these monikers are crossed metaphors and false identities.”

DeSoto’s Conquest appears to be a mid-century masterpiece of Detroit steel, yet its details tell a more complex story. The Conquest’s emblem contains a sword and a representation of smallpox virus (including its Latin name, “orthopox viridae”). The interior furnishings have been tweaked to reflect what he described to a New York Times reporter as “arrogant luxury.” And the ersatz owner’s manual contains, he says “remnants of the Requieremento, the legal document read to Native peoples before their submission to Spain.” It’s all very subtle—so subtle, in fact, that DeSoto was able to enter the car into a Chrysler car show in southern California as a replica of a rarity, and it won second prize.

Since completing Conquest, deSoto has produced two other artfully customized cars, both more overt in their commentary. His Cahuilla, from 2006, is a modified pickup truck that explores Indians’ recent prosperity as keepers of the nation’s casinos; its fonts and patterns are taken from U.S. currency, its tonneau cover looks like a craps table, and its bumper sticker reads BUY AMERICA BACK. His Imperial America, from 2008, is a 1956 Chrysler Imperial upon which is mounted a scale model of a nuclear missile of the same era.

Indian Country Today Media Network spoke with deSoto about his fully drivable commentaries on American history and society.

How does the De Soto relate to your personal identity?
DeSoto is a namesake that allowed me to look boldly into some of the realities of this historical character and describe without romance issues of colonization and cultural imperialism.

What about the cars that followed—how are they related to your own story?
The Cahuilla was looking into my Native American roots and imagining what kind of vehicle would have been named for my Tribal affiliation.  The Cahuilla sued the federal government in 1981 to gain the right to build casinos on sovereign indigenous lands.... and they won.  So I wanted to mark that with a rich, bold statement of native affluence.

The Imperial remarks on the age that I grew up in, the Cold War.  The "missile gap," the "space race," were all terms I heard of; America's influence after WWII was the environment I grew up in. And my father worked for the US Navy at the General Dynamics plant in Pomona, California, that built the nuclear Polaris missile and other weapons.

The Conquest was very subtle—it has “passed” for a real production car—but the American Imperial is more clearly a piece of art. Are you moving in a direction toward more obvious statements?
I'm always into the details, and I figure viewers are not as well versed in automobile styling details as I am. The Imperial is nearly stock in every way; I have changed very little, just fiddled with colors, patterns, and the richness of the experience of the car itself.  The rocket is the "invisible baggage" that we carry as Americans.  We are still the nation with the most war material of any modern nation.  I think each car has a built-in opportunity for meaning, with some meanings needing to be more upfront than others.  I view all the work as humorous in some way.  The rocket is just a larger, but chilling joke.

There exists in America the tradition of the “art car”—the broad archetype would be a car that is covered from hood to trunk with paint and various glued-on objects. Do your cars have anything in common with art cars created by such artists as Ed Kienholz, John Chamberlain, and David Best?
My works are more like counterfeits.  They are meant to slip into the world rather than be isolated by the museum or the gallery.  They get driven to the grocery store, to the restaurant, to the bank.  I pick up soil in the truck.  They live in the world; the other works live in buildings, galleries and museums.  I remember I happened upon a David Best car in Marin County many years ago, just parked on the street.  It was so shocking and amazing to see it in the world, rather than in a gallery where it was so obviously a "metaphor."

Are there more cars in your future?  If so, how are they taking shape?
I do have ideas for more cars as art works, but right now I am working on cars as cars. The ones I'm making now, for example the SVT Vetessa, are styled, customized and then sold. I've been very busy trying to get people to see them, which is a whole project in itself -- take a look at them on my "secret" website, desotodesign.net.

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