Collected by artist and motorcycle rider Jeff Decker, Hell’s Union: Motorcycle Club Cuts as American Folk Art is an exhibition at UCR CMP — University California Riverside California Museum of Photography. Deckers collection of 1960’s and 70’s motorcycle riders vests emblazoned with their clubs colors shows an obsession by both collector and the original owners.
The vests and cut off jackets mainly of denim proudly emblazoned with the riders club allegiance, are at once totemic and almost twee. We’re asked to view the work as part of American Folk Art tradition and in doing so we allow ourselves to go past the initial resistance or fear of the violent undertones of biker culture and see these as artifacts describing an almost arcane yet deeply elemental component of American folklore.
Folk art or at least the capturing and presenting of it can be a difficult business, often work created by those on the margins due to race, economic’s, geography or even intention the work is invariably not meant for wider consumption, nor is it consciously created in the way art with a capital A is. Collating and presenting the work highlights the conditions often difficult and oppressive that people live in, conditions that the more mainstream would like to pretend do not exist, or at least agree upon not recognising. Yet it is these conditions that often bring about the material aesthetic as well as the functional need for self production.
Maybe it is because the jackets are made from denim that has led some to compare this exhibition with that of The Quilts of Gees Bend, a phenomenon that swept the art and craft world of North America some six years ago—a beautiful audio piece can be heard at The [Un]Observed. Yet this is truly disingenuous to the women of Gees Bend. Although both groups can be seen as marginalized by society, and the work of both I believe more than comfortably fits within the American Folk Art rubric, it’s for very different reasons that these two groups are marginalised and at least from the mainstream seen as culturally impoverished. Rural Alabama and its generational poverty that leads people to stitch together remnants of clothing to create quilts for warmth can in no way be compared to the conditions of 60s and 70s motorcycle culture.
The comparison between the two can only be held within the narrow field of vision which looks upon anaesthetic and certain material quality of the object. And here I see two distinct reasons why both the Hells Union and Gees Bend objects elicit our interest and curiosity. Firstly the need and ability to make, to create, even from the most impoverished of materials, is intrinsically human it is something that we all share as a history and a compulsion, secondly in our contemporary world abstracted from the making process we can see all too readily how affecting the making of totemic and tribal creations is.
An article and assessment of the exhibition can be found at UCR