The Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard played host to Santa Barbara artist Hank Pitcher for a fascinating slide lecture on the long and loving relationship between this California artist and the automobile. Although he paid considerable attention to the value of autos as aesthetic objects—how could one not when surrounded by the fabulous vintage Bugattis of the Mullin collection?—Pitcher’s emphasis fell just as much on the fact that while cars are great for looking at, they are also crucial for getting to beautiful places and looking out from the car at them. The occasion of this slide lecture was the inclusion of one of Pitcher’s most important works, a large painting of Point Conception, in the upstairs gallery of California art that complements the extraordinary collection of vintage French automobiles that dominates the rest of the museum’s beautifully designed interior.
Using a whimsical video clip of Dinah Shore shilling for Chevrolet and the USA as his initial point of departure, Pitcher wove a dense and compelling tapestry of personal stories into the larger fabric of California’s special place in the American romance with the auto. Demonstrating a keen awareness of the human factor in the design process, Pitcher called attention to the pivotal role played at General Motors by another Californian, the Hollywood-born Harley Earl, whose talent for design and marketing led to great power at what was at the time the world’s largest corporation. Earl engineered not only the appearances of individual automobiles, but the entire system through which cars are marketed, a phenomenon that to this day is largely taken for granted. “Concept cars,” decorative fins, and even something seemingly so fundamental as the notion of changing designs to mark the passing of each model year—all these one-time innovations can be traced back to Harley Earl. Pitcher dwelt on the idea that in the 1950s, middle class Americans were able to buy an entry level car and then trade it in every few years on something more expensive, an aspirational adventure known as “moving up the line.”
As an introduction to his own contribution to the grand tradition of American branding, Pitcher described how surfboard shapers and distributors responded to the romance of the car companies “badge” logos with powerful names and images of their own. Given the opportunity to participate in this culture of popular image-making, Pitcher responded with the design for Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax, still the most popular surfboard wax in the world. Circling back to revisit his earlier comments about cars as places from which to see, Pitcher cited surfboards as modes of transport likely to expose their riders to otherwise unavailable points of view. Seeing the world from the lineup, said Pitcher, was one of the biggest influences on his understanding of how to paint the California coast.
The rest of the talk flew by in a series of bright images, from the “Pink Drinks” served to members on the patio of the wonderful Art Deco Coral Casino, a Santa Barbara landmark that Pitcher has painted a number of times, and that he once occupied for a well-heeled spell, to the last sunset of the year series he has been working on annually for decades at Butterfly Beach. As each anecdote was illustrated by one or more of his paintings, so each painting called up further meditations on the goals of art and design. What do great cars and great paintings have in common? That’s easy. “When you can see all of something all the time, the way you can look at a car or a painting in isolation, all the parts must relate to each other, and every detail must be as good as every other detail. Good landscape painters have all three zones in focus—the foreground, the middle ground, and the background” said Pitcher. The same goes for a great automobile, and the Mullin Automotive Museum overflows with examples of both.
The Mullin Automotive Museum is located at 1421 Emerson Avenue in Oxnard, and is only open to the public on certain days of the month. To learn more or to arrange a visit, go to mullinautomotivemuseum.com or call 385-5400.