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“What has Kansei engineering done for us lately?” asks a 1989 Mazda Miata advertisement among the documents of the artist Peter Cain. On the same page, above a simmering red roadster, “RESERVE FOR NEW PORSCHE PAINTINGS” is written in the artist’s hand. Around the same time, Cain began collaging promotional images of cars as studies for the paintings he is best known for today: canvases with hyperrealistic depictions of mutant automobiles, smushed into bizarre abstract forms.

Prelude #, 1990
Prelude #, 1990
Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery
Prelude #2, 1990
Prelude #2, 1990
Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

According to friends of Cain, who died in his thirties in 1997, the artist knew little about cars. But to think of these paintings as the fan art of an obsessive gear head is to miss the point. Since the 1960s, American artists have had a strange obsession with the surfaces of automobiles. The sculptor John Chamberlain used crushed cars as his medium for the majority of his career. Andy Warhol had a similar fixation, one that featured prominently in his gory series of car accident paintings. Donald Judd used car paints to achieve the uncanny, shining finish of many of his minimalist forms, and James Rosenquist, a painter with whom Cain is sometimes compared, featured images of hubcaps and other shiny auto parts in his compositions. The surface of the car seems to serve as a stand-in for the glimmering, alluring, yet often warped surface of American capitalism itself. Or as curator Beau Rutland puts it in a monograph on Cain’s work: “Automobiles easily conjure the entire spectrum of modern life: money, sex, power, freedom, death, destruction, and salvation.”

What sets Cain’s work apart from the haunted Americana of his predecessors, however, is that his cars are clearly for no one. With no seats, no windows, not even an engine, they share more in common with gadgets than with vehicles. They are pure surface, distilled down to the edges, textures, and contours that produce desire in a product. Today, Cain’s work takes on a new resonance at a time when cloud computing has turned commercial objects into totems for something otherworldly. Our smartphones with the perfect bezel and our Bluetooth earbuds with cases that click shut just-so are the bodily manifestation of the data that defines us. These are our cars for no one.

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