“No one knows where the name came from.” So says the driver of a “Blunderbust” race car, a class of big (minimum 115 inch wheelbase) and heavy (almost two ton) stock cars that run most Saturday nights at Long Island’s Riverhead Raceway—the oldest operational track in the U.S.—and nowhere else. The racing is rough. The drivers are rough, and scarred, just like their cars. Compared to Blunderbust racing, Nascar looks like a cricket match—manicured, mannered, lillywhite.
Blunderbust culture is Michael Dweck’s subject—something of a breakthrough for the photographer, not only because it marks a significant departure from his previous series of portraits and nudes but also because this new body of work must be classified as something other than merely conceptual or commercial or documentary or formal or as some high-art synthesis or short-circuiting of these. As a photographer, Dweck approaches this culture like a renegade anthropologist, a fascinated outsider whose curiosity and respect have gained him access to a disappearing tribe. His point, however, is not to document this culture, to freeze it in time for the archive, in a gesture of “this once was”—though Dweck has produced a documentary film that does some of that. Rather, Dweck’s photographs explore a more subtle language of forms and marks and images that this Blunderbust culture “speaks.”
Take the largest series of photographs, for example. It would be a mistake to think of these as imitations of abstract painting. Dweck’s camera is forensic in its manic attention to what happens when fender meets quarter panel at seventy miles per hour. Facture here is a function of mass and acceleration. Paint and detailing are little more than sacrificial. Technically, the works are high-fidelity, dye-printed panels that eliminate any and all depth of field, the effect of which is to render them even more unfamiliar, even more unlike the car panels from which they derive. In fact, there is very little sense that these photographic prints are derivative of any pro-filmic thing, either car panel, abstract painting, billboard, road sign, or any other appropriately two-dimensional designed surface.
The point, of course, isn’t to invoke the whole, but to analyze the fragment, to drill down into its secrets. Any given panel may have been painted 20, 30, even 40 times, which means every scrape, every metal-on-metal contact at speed reveals something of that panel’s history (not the car’s, importantly, because “car” here is only rhetorical, an entity composed of any number of different components that have been raced in and as any number of different “cars”). In this, Dweck’s photography is a kind of industrial archaeology. The manufacturers of these cars, big American names such as Cadillac, Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Ford, and others, aren’t making cars this big or this heavy anymore, so the drivers and their teams—family members and local gearheads—have to source increasingly scarce frames and parts from chop shops and junk yards.
And these are not the only artifacts that Dweck’s camera digs up. There are portraits of the drivers: sons of east Long Island for whom lures like the Hamptons or Shelter Island supply seasonal customers for their local area businesses, and likely the butts of many a joke, if not the objects of many an irritation. Folks from Amagansett buy a lot of cars, but probably have never built one. The drivers appear hard and proud. And Riverhead Raceway, also in Dweck’s sights, is their middle-class redoubt. The track, like the community, demands character. It’s akin to a triple-A baseball diamond, but without the wholesome Iowa farm boy bullshit. Then there are the pictures of parts, sandblasted and ghostly skeletal: wheels, springs, chassis. Uncovered and offered up as if by some archeologist of the future. Standing out of time and beyond any imagined use, they are the relics of a lost religion.
Taken together, Dweck’s photographs and prints give us something more than a mere “portrait” of Blunderbust culture, which they only capture obliquely anyhow. These cars, these people, this place, they are moving slowly, their time is winding down (the number of cars on the track is diminishing each year: a few years ago, there were 33 racing on any given Saturday night; last year there were only 22). This idiosyncratic pastime—racing big, heavy, stock American sedans on a small dangerous track—is out of step with the industrial world at large, the one that wants lighter and cleaner vehicles, higher tech entertainments, broader recognition, if not affirmation, for one’s profile and skills—which, it’s worth mentioning, when they are employed, will increasingly be put to fixing and operating a new generation of robotics that will do most of our future’s “making.”
Cars and car culture, obsolete and otherwise, are far from foreign to the history of recent art. One thinks of Ed Ruscha’s books, which mapped the natural habitat (gas stations, parking lots, the Sunset Strip) of the Los Angeles automobile; or of Richard Prince’s muscle car hoods made from fiberglass and Bondo. John Chamberlain’s sculptures loom large here too. But where Chamberlain’s practice is one that constantly reminds its viewers of the singular artistic will to material transformation that stands behind each and every work, Blunderbust offers up to view, in a wholly unelgiac way, the structural conditions (macroeconomic, demographic, technological) for which its aesthetics are merely effects—of collisions, of closures, of a fatalist persistence in the face of inevitable extinction. Against Chamberlain’s heroics, then, we have Blunderbust’s pathos. Look again at the panels. Dweck’s printing process strips out all of the camera’s, all of photography’s, conventional language in order to leave behind something apparently unmediated, like long-buried bone.
In this sense, Blunderbust is a picture of failing resistance, but resistance nonetheless; it’s a kind of defiant expression of commitment and community that cares little for life beyond the track. Call it ‘purposeful purposelessness’, which is another name for beauty.