A crane, a classic car and a pool: Mexican artist parks sculpture on OKC's Automobile Alley

·8 min read

Dangling from a towering crane, the black 1975 Plymouth Duster glints in the summer sun as a team of workers carefully angles the polished hood to face N Broadway Avenue.

Under the watchful eye of Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija, workers in hard hats guided the classic car nose down toward a hole lined with and surrounded by a black rubber waterproof membrane.

"I like that it's really in a kind of garden, like an urban garden, and it's on this avenue, the Automobile Alley," Lebrija told The Oklahoman. "It has a history ... and it’s nice when the work also can achieve some new ideas over time."

As midday traffic zipped along — with occasional slowdowns as drivers noticed the roadside action — the installation team on Tuesday perfectly parked Lebrija's car at its extraordinary off-the-ground angle. They then propped a ladder against the now-vertical undercarriage so one team member could climb up, remove the hefty hook and free the Plymouth from the crane.

When the 2,500-pound car proved sturdily balanced on the armature attached under the front bumper, some bystanders shouted triumphantly.

A team works Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, to install "Breve historia del tiempo," a sculpture by Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija's, at Campbell Art Park at Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center on Automobile Alley in Oklahoma City.
A team works Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, to install "Breve historia del tiempo," a sculpture by Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija's, at Campbell Art Park at Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center on Automobile Alley in Oklahoma City.

And that's when the waterworks began.

As a hose-wielding worker filled the 25-foot-by-50-foot reflecting pool under the Duster with 2,500 gallons of water, Steve Boyd poured a packet of black nontoxic dye into the manmade waves.

"It's definitely not something you see every day,” said Boyd, Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center's exhibitions manager.

But for the next eight months, anyone driving on N Broadway will be hard-pressed to miss Lebrija's monumental public sculpture while it's parked in front of Oklahoma Contemporary at Campbell Art Park. Titled "Breve historia del tiempo," it's the first arrival for a major exhibit of Mexican artwork opening next month at the nonprofit arts center.

"It looks awesome. ... There's a long history of the auto industry here in OKC, and obviously, Automobile Alley pays homage to that," said Oklahoma Contemporary Director Jeremiah Matthew Davis.

"We do get a lot of walk-up and drive-up traffic ... and we'll chalk that up as a win any time somebody stops and reverses course to see the art."

A team works Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, to install "Breve historia del tiempo," a sculpture by Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija's, at Campbell Art Park at Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center on Automobile Alley in Oklahoma City.
A team works Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, to install "Breve historia del tiempo," a sculpture by Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija's, at Campbell Art Park at Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center on Automobile Alley in Oklahoma City.

Memorable dream inspires monumental car sculpture

The inspiration for "Breve historia del tiempo" — which translates to "A Brief History of Time" — came to Lebrija more than 20 years ago.

"The first idea really came from a kind of dream that I had of a car falling down into a lake and just stopping at the moment it touched the water. Then this image just started to grow up in my mind until I did it," Lebrija said.

From that dream in 2001, Lebrija devised "Entre la vida y la muerta," a 2008 performance piece that he pulled off by using a crane to drop another Plymouth Duster into a lake just outside of his home base in Guadalajara, Mexico.

He used a high-speed camera to immortalize his car drop and managed to capture a photograph of the moment just before the front bumper touched the water.

"Once I had the print of the image, the print changed the image on my conscious. ... It took over," he recalled. "In the image, you have this kind of vertigo sensation; you feel that the car really is giving you this idea of gravity force."

If he could reimagine the photo as a large-scale sculpture featuring the muscle car suspended over a reflecting pool, the artist figured he could give people a 3-D version of that feeling.

"Cars belong to the streets. So, if you do this close to the street, what would happen just with the simple gesture of lifting a car and changing the direction of being horizontal and just put it vertical in water?” Lebrija said.

"My concepts, I think, are very simple. The language I use is simple. Sometimes the production is not very simple. I need to bring this car from Mexico ... so sometimes simplicity takes a lot of effort. ... But once it's installed, it's a work that can be understood, in many layers, by very different people."

Nearly a decade in the making

Known affectionately as "The Car," the sculpture is part of Mexico City’s famed La Colección Jumex. It is on loan to Oklahoma Contemporary through March 27.

"They sent us all the technical drawings, how everything worked, and we brought it via a fine arts shipper. There's always a little bit of slowdown at the border, but we got everything," Boyd said.

"I'm so happy to work with Smith & Pickel Construction on these. In fact, they've built almost every exhibition that we've done in Campbell Park, and they also built our building. ... They did all this in a little less than two weeks."

But the idea of bringing "Breve historia del tiempo" to OKC dates back nearly a decade. From 2012 to 2018, Oklahoma Contemporary operated a satellite gallery in Marfa, Texas. That's where the art center's staffers first connected with Lebrija and exhibited his popular sculpture — featuring a Champagne-hued 1968 Chevrolet Malibu rather than the black '75 Plymouth Duster — in 2014.

The latest installation of his massive public sculpture marks Lebrija's OKC debut.

"I always find (it) exciting to bring my work to new territories. I think it always changes, is never the same. It will always create different reactions," he said.

"Public artwork should have the responsibility to engage not only art professionals. It should engage all kinds of people."

The sculpture "Breve historia del tiempo" by Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija's is installed Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at Campbell Art Park at Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center on Automobile Alley in Oklahoma City.
The sculpture "Breve historia del tiempo" by Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija's is installed Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, at Campbell Art Park at Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center on Automobile Alley in Oklahoma City.

Sculpture to drive interest in upcoming Mexican art exhibit

Lebrija's "Brief History of Time" is intended to drive interest in Oklahoma Contemporary's upcoming exhibit "La casa que nos inventamos: Contemporary Art From Guadalajara," which will showcase about 50 conceptual artworks — from paintings and sculptures to installations and performances — created within the last decade by nearly 20 visual artists from or living in the capital and largest city of the Mexican state of Jalisco.

"This exhibition is many years in the making," Davis said. "We found a lot of parallels between the city of Guadalajara and the city of Oklahoma City."

The exhibit's title is Spanish for "The House That We Invented."

"Guadalajara, starting about 25 or 30 years ago, started to really invest in culture and art and design. The artists who are part of this exhibition — dating back from the '90s until more recently, more or less two generations of artists — have decided (that) instead of leaving for Mexico City, they were going to stay in Guadalajara and make it something special. So, we see a vision for how we can continue to grow and expand as a city and continue the ongoing cultural and economic renaissance," Davis said.

The exhibit will feature works by Mexican artists who rose to international prominence in the 2000s such as Jose Dávila, Eduardo Sarabia and Francisco Ugarte, along with up-and-comers like Isa Carillo, Larissa Garza and Renata Petersen.

"We've got a major Mexican-American population ... here in OKC — concentrated on the south side but really all over the metropolitan area — so much so that in fact, later this year, a Mexican consulate is opening in Oklahoma City," Davis said. "We already have a Guatemalan consulate, so we're already an international city in that respect. But bringing in the Mexican consulate will add a new dimension to the city and to its standing internationally."

Oklahoma Contemporary already is planning a big Open House weekend Sept. 23-24 to celebrate the debut of "La casa que nos inventamos."

"In a way, it's making up for lost time," Davis said. "We had planned for some amazing things to happen in March of 2020, and the COVID pandemic got in the way of those plans. But we're relaunching in some ways with this exhibition to make sure that everybody here in our community knows that this is their art center and we're open for business."

A team works Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, to install "Breve historia del tiempo," a sculpture by Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija's, at Campbell Art Park at Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center on Automobile Alley in Oklahoma City.
A team works Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022, to install "Breve historia del tiempo," a sculpture by Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija's, at Campbell Art Park at Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center on Automobile Alley in Oklahoma City.

Reception to celebrate car sculpture's arrival in OKC

Oklahoma Contemporary will celebrate the arrival of Lebrija's classic car sculpture with a free opening reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday. The festivities will include live mariachi music, light refreshments, a cash bar and brief remarks from the artist.

"The automobile for my generation — and for many other generations — I think is the most important object of the 20th century ... with all the concepts and ideas that apply around the car, not only about moving, but also about this sense of freeness," Lebrija, 50, said.

"I think we are arriving to the end of an era now of the gasoline cars. The world is changing, transportation is changing — and they should change, of course. So, I think it's a very melancholic work, in terms of that."

Since it is a public artwork, though, Lebrija said people are free to interpret it as they wish.

"I have my concept around it, but it doesn't matter my concept anymore once it becomes in the public domain. ... All these stories that people start to make out (about it), they all have a certain value," he said.

"But it will create a lot of attention."

'The Car' at Oklahoma Contemporary

What: Gonzalo Lebrija's monumental sculpture "Breve historia del tiempo"

On view: Through March 27.

Where: Campbell Art Park at Oklahoma Contemporary, 11 NW 11.

Free opening reception: 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday.

Information: https://oklahomacontemporary.org.

This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija parks big sculpture on OKC's Auto Alley